Oregonians loathe a sales tax about as much as Washingtonians detest an income tax. Knowing that, why would Curry County commissioners put a 3 percent sales tax on the ballot later this year?
The answer: Money.
Curry, Oregon’s southwesternmost county, is one of a network of economically distressed rural counties throughout the West with double-digit unemployment and facing the potential loss of federal subsidies.
Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act in 2000 to provide transition payments to counties affected by sharp declines in federal timber sales. Those declines were due in part to measures taken to protect old-growth forest habitat for the threatened marbled murrelet and northern spotted owl.
But just as rural timber-dependent counties are financially strapped, Congress is drowning in red ink. Our national debt is swelling and soon will exceed $16 trillion, meaning each American taxpayer owes nearly $140,000.
Earlier this year, Curry County commissioners became so desperate they lobbied Oregon’s legislature to allow them to tap the road fund to pay for sheriff’s patrols. That borrowing only pays the bills for two months.
So they now have turned to a county sales tax. If approved by the voters, it would be a partial budget patch. But what’s driving rural timber-dependent county officials to the brink of bankruptcy is they no longer have the ability to harvest federal timber.
No timber sales, no jobs, and then you are at the mercy of congressional handouts. For distressed counties that’s like asking your rich uncle who is in Chapter 11 for money to put groceries on the table.
Washington Congressman Doc Hastings (R), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and whose district includes hard-hit Skamania County, proposes to increase timber harvests in federal forests. It requires the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management sell 33.2 billion board feet per year and send the money back to counties like Curry and Skamania.
Skamania County, where unemployment was 11.6 percent most of last year, stands to lose $6 million of its $13 million budget if the federal subsidies go away and Hasting’s measure fails.
Oregon congressmen Peter DeFazio (D) and Greg Walden (R) have a similar measure, offering long-term leases on up to 1 million acres of federal timber land in Western Oregon managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Critics pit logging against endangered birds and fish runs. It doesn’t have to play out that way. Our state’s Forests & Fish Law has shown that wildlife and logging are compatible.
Still, there’s a deeper problem: finding a more permanent income stream for counties with vast acreages of federal forestlands.
Hastings, DeFazio and Walden are on the right track. Let’s hope President Obama and their congressional colleagues hop aboard this train.
Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state’s chamber of commerce. Visit http://www.awb.org.