Rural Counties Worry About Losing Federal Schools, Roads Funding
Officials in 33 Montana counties are keenly aware of what's not in the trillion dollar federal spending bill to keep government open: an extension of the Secure Rural Schools, or SRS program, that Montana counties have relied on since 2000.
SRS funding is stripped out of the spending bill the House has been considering this week.
The SRS program was helps pay down school bonds and also funds road maintenance projects.
Mineral County Commissioner Laurie Johnston has a blunt assessment of the situation.
"If we lose it, we're screwed. We wouldn't be able to run our county if we didn't have that money. We're going to have to lay people off. We're gonna have to run on a shoestring budget."
"If we lose it, we're screwed. We wouldn't be able to run our county if we didn't have that money. We're going to have to lay people off. We're gonna have to run on a shoestring budget," says Johnston.
That's a worst case scenario. Mineral county's final budget recommendations are not yet in place. Johnston says Mineral County depends on Secure Rural Schools funds that stabilize declining federal timber, mining and other land use payments to rural counties.
Montana gets a $20 million slice of the total $330 million SRS pie.
Congressman Steve Daines' office says that funding is mandatory and will continue at least into the next quarter.
What happens after that is anyone's guess. If SRS is not included in the spending bill, then less federal money could flow into county coffers.
"We're looking at a two-and-a-half-million dollar deficit just for the road department," Lincoln County Commissioner Mike Cole says. "Schools...I think they got half a million dollars of that. So, yeah, it's going to be a big shock."
But Cole says Lincoln county has an ace up its sleeve that other rural counties may not, an estimated $15 million rainy day fund.
"That was just forethought from our prior commissioners. Back in the days of logging when those dollar were rolling in, they were very forethoughtful in putting that away; so we thank them...a lot."
Mineral County Commissioner Laurie Johnston blames the federal government and environmentalists' lawsuits for declining timber harvests that led to the Secure Rural School program. Environmentalist Michael Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies sees it differently.
"When we win in court, the only reason we win is because the judge has ruled the Forest Service broke the law. The easiest solution for that is not to break the law."