With the 2000 Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act up for reauthorization, lawmakers have been unable to reach a consensus on extending the law. At issue are the spending formula associated with the original 2000 law and funding for the program that supports rural schools and counties. During today's OnPoint, Bob Douglas, president of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition, discusses why he believes the extension of this law is a domestic emergency. Douglas explains what may happen to the counties and schools that depend on the funding provided by the legislation.
Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Bob Douglas, president of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition. Bob, thanks for coming on the show.
Bob Douglas: My pleasure.
Monica Trauzzi: Bob, you're in town talking to members of Congress about the reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act. I wanted to first start off by having you explain what exactly this legislation does and why it's so important to have it reauthorized.
Bob Douglas: Well, the legislation provides funding for rural schools in counties that are in our national forest areas. And we have 800 counties in America that are in and adjacent to our national forests and those counties have about 4400 rural school districts. And this legislation replaced the loss of forest reserve payments to those counties and schools that have been in place since 1908 and became, over that almost hundred year period, a major portion of supporting the infrastructure in county government and public schools in those almost 800 counties.
Monica Trauzzi: So give us a sense of what it all means. If it's not reauthorized what's going to happen to these schools and counties that use the funding from this legislation?
Bob Douglas: Well, as I said, this is a major portion of the budgets in these county governments for public roads, search and rescue services, fire, law enforcement, for county services, for public schools. It's a major part of our public school funding in these rural counties. It's become a major source of revenue over the years. And if you lose 25 to 27 percent of your budget in either county government for roads and search and rescue or for rural schools those services will not even begin to look like what they do today. And it's a public service issue and a public safety issue in these rural areas. And it's also a matter of equity in terms of public education. You know, No Child Left behind applies to the rest of America. If this is not renewed in these rural counties every child will be left behind.
Monica Trauzzi: In a recent letter that was written to Congress that you were included on, March 15 is listed as the date of when pink slips might start going out. So do you think it's even too late now?
Bob Douglas: It's not too late for Congress to act, and that's why we're in town this week, to remind them that on the emergency supplemental they have an opportunity to address a domestic emergency, which is the emergency faced by rural schools and counties. We are starting to give lay off notices in the education community because of our state laws on personnel as early as March 15. In California, where I'm from, I'm a school superintendent, many of my colleagues and school boards will begin issuing layoff notices next week to essentially teachers and specialists, and that will be true across the country. County government, generally it's going to happen a little bit later this spring, but there will be a cavalcade of layoff notices. We're estimating between 12,000 and 16,000 jobs will be lost, and services then lost to people in our counties, between, March 15 and probably May 15. Most of those jobs being terminated at the end of June and not be available to school districts and citizens next year.
Monica Trauzzi: So there's talk about extending the bill by one year and then there's also a multiyear approach. Senator Wyden has proposed legislation that basically mirrors the provisions in the Secure Rural Schools Act. And Senator Bingaman also feels that Congress should be focusing on a multiyear approach. But the administration had said that they would be in favor of a one-year extension. So why is there this disparity about how long we should extend this legislation for?
Bob Douglas: I think there are two answers to that question. One is money and finding the funding for both the one year and a multiyear reauthorization of the act. Right now the current bill costs about $520 million per year. If you do that over five to seven years you're talking about three to $3.5 billion, which in the current budget climate is difficult to find in terms of offsets. So money is part of the issue. The other issue is a matter of perceived fairness, whether or not there are enough other states other than California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana that received the bulk of the payments because of their historic production of forest products. There's some concern that if we're moving to a different kind of payment formula that we would provide greater payments to other states in the union. And that discussion is going on, we think that that is a discussion that has to happen and ...
Monica Trauzzi: Should other states be receiving money from this program though?
Bob Douglas: Well, I mean you have to understand that the agreement that Congress reached with the counties of America were reached with all 800 counties of America when we established the national forest system. So depending on what you're trying to achieve with this legislation the answer is yes, perhaps they should. We set out to essentially try to achieve equity of treatment among all counties and school districts in the Forest Counties as a coalition. We remain committed to that.
Monica Trauzzi: And Senator Wyden of Oregon has said, "We've got the trees." He's been quoted as saying that when he talks about the fact of sharing the money from the program with other states. And his bill would reauthorize the spending formula that we've seen in the previous bill. So what are your thoughts on this spending formula that he's proposing?
Bob Douglas: Well, I think that the spending formula that he's proposing is the one that we have in place now. It has served us well for the last six years. We passed that formula in a time, again, when there was a budget surplus. We now have six years of experience with it and we're in a budget deficit. And resources for rural communities across the nation are needed. And I suspect that in order to achieve a consensus in the United States Senate that some modification of the formula will need to happen in order to achieve 60 plus votes in the Senate to move this. At this point in time, as a coalition, we believe that that discussion can happen in a timely, diplomatic way, in a statesmanlike way. We don't believe that that discussion can happen prior to a one-year extension and an emergency supplemental because building consensus across the country to support a change in formula will take an extensive discussion. We believe that that should be reserved for the multiyear reauthorization that would happen next year in Congress.
Monica Trauzzi: Norm Dicks initially said that the administration's plan to sell federal land to fund the Secure Rural Schools Program was dead on arrival. He then went back on that a bit. Western governors are also opposed to that proposal. What is the issue there and why not fund the legislation this way?
Bob Douglas: I think from our coalition's perspective the issue is not dead. On the other hand, we have said that we are open to examining all offset proposals that have been put forward, including the President. The pragmatic side of that is that no member of Congress has yet embraced that proposal or put it into any bill. And so while it's a proposal worthy of consideration it does not appear to be being embraced by the Congress. But our coalition remains open to all proposals that have been put forward and a number have been.
Monica Trauzzi: All things considered realistically, how likely is it that this will be reauthorized and reauthorized in time to save all those jobs that you were talking about?
Bob Douglas: We're very optimistic that Congress will recognize the peril faced by rural communities and schools. We don't think the Congress of the United States wants to walk away from 9.049 million rural kids. Members of Congress that I know, that I've met in the last 10 years, have compassion in their hearts for people in rural America and they don't want to abandon them. It's difficult to find a solution, but we remain confident that if we continue to work with members of Congress, and we intend to, that members of Congress will work with us and we will find a solution to this before we have to devastate America's rural schools and America's rural communities. We don't want people traveling on unsafe roads without snow removal when they try to go to recreation. We don't want people to get lost in the mountains of America and not have search and rescue available to save their lives and their family's lives. We don't think the Congress of the United States wants to do that either. We don't think the Congress of the United States wants to have people not protected in wildfires and that kind of thing, so we're very hopeful that we're going to find a solution.
Monica Trauzzi: OK, we're going to end it on that note. Thanks for coming on the show.
Bob Douglas: Thank you.
Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.
[End of Audio]