House OKs Timber Payments, But Alaskans Can’t Count on It

A federal revenue-sharing program called Secure Rural Schools has been a million-dollar boon to some Alaska cities and boroughs, mostly in Southeast. Despite the name, the money doesn’t just go to schools, and these days it’s not at all secure. But a two-year extension of Secure Rural Schools has advanced in Congress.

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The extension was tacked onto a bill on an unrelated subject, Medicare funding, the so-called “Doc fix” bill. The U.S. House passed the bill last week. The Senate is likely to take it up week after next.

National Association of Counties spokesman Brian Namey says municipalities and school districts in 41 states depend on their SRS money not only for education, but also for roads and emergency services. Namey says that creates a broad base of support and he’s optimistic.

“Our allies on Capitol Hill are hearing this call from boroughs across Alaska and counties across the country that these programs need to be reauthorized and fully funded,” Namey said.

Secure Rural Schools grew out of a 1908 law that gave local governments 25 percent of federal timber receipts from nearby forests. But then in the 1990s, the national timber harvest declined dramatically, so Congress created a new program to base payments on what a community’s harvest used to be. Last year, Alaska communities got $14 million from it, but the program expired at the end of the fiscal year.

Its extension seems to have hitched a good ride with the Medicare Doc-fix bill. The vote in the House was overwhelming, President Obama supports it, and senators are under a lot of pressure to pass it. But opposition is growing, particularly from deficit hawks. The free-market advocacy group Club for Growth, for instance, wants to stop the Doc Fix, and it’s warning lawmakers their vote on the bill will be part of their annual scorecard. Club for Growth spokesman Doug Sachtleben  says the bill is an expensive package.

“The issue for us was not only do you lump a lot of stuff together in one bill but you do it without off-setting 100 plus billion dollars,” he said.

Club for Growth doesn’t have a position on Secure Rural Schools itself, but Sachtleben is skeptical of the House approach.

“If it’s worthwhile, important issue, it ought to have the merit to be debated by senators, instead of being put into a bill predominantly intended to be a Medicare reimbursement rate bill,” said Sachtleben.

In Alaska, borough managers like Steve Giesbrecht of Petersburg aren’t sure they can rely on Secure Rural Schools money. Petersburg, with a population of just over 3,000, is one of a handful of Alaska communities that have reaped more than $1 million a year from SRS. Giesbrecht says he’s not counting on it continuing.

What we heard when we were in DC related to Secure Rural Schools was secure rural school is going to go away. We may get an extension or two in a wind-down, but there’s just not a lot of support for it.

Giesbrecht say the borough has saved much of its SRS money in a schools saving account, so losing the payments won’t cause an immediate crisis. But at the same time, the state is slashing its spending, and another federal program that funds local governments, PILT, or Payment-in-Lieu of taxes, is in jeopardy. Giesbrecht says he’s working to launch a community dialog on the tough choices ahead for Petersburg.

KFSK News Director Joe Viechnicki contributed to this report from Petersburg.