A Budget Ax over 'Harry Potter Crowd' ; A Quirk in Federal Funding Could Close All 15 Libraries in Jackson County, Ore

Article excerpt

In a corner of southwestern Oregon, a century's worth of American history is bumping up against the politics of federal spending. As a result, all 15 public libraries in Jackson County could be shuttered in a few weeks for loss of federal payments.

Washington, Alaska, Montana, and other states would be affected as well. In California, more than 4,500 schools face imminent teacher and administrator layoffs.

As a portion of President Bush's $2.9 trillion budget sent to Congress Monday, not much money is involved: about $800 million or so. But the cutoff in funding has united lawmakers across the political spectrum - from Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska on the right to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California on the left. Normally mild- mannered Sen. Gordon Smith (R) of Oregon is threatening to filibuster a $464 billion continuing resolution meant to fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year because of what is, in essence, a quirk of history.

The controversy also highlights the difficulties of fairly allocating federal money in rural areas where the government owns so much of the land. On one hand, federal ownership crimps growth and constrains the tax base. On the other hand, residents in some of these localities pay less in state and local taxes than residents in other states.

The story starts about 100 years ago when Congress allotted 25 percent of timber harvest revenues from national forests to rural counties and school districts. Forty-one states around the country benefited from the program, mostly in the West where much (in some states most) of the land is owned by the federal government.

"For generations, these timber receipts provided funds to offset the fact that local communities cannot tax the federal government," Senator Smith said on the floor of the Senate recently.

Then came federal environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act. Combined with what critics said was overcutting and the loss of timber jobs, the industry saw its revenues fall by some 70 percent in the 1990s. As a result, says Smith, "When timber harvest evaporated, so did county budgets."

In 2000, Congress passed the "Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act" meant to make up the difference. …

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