County payments and the single-minded, reckless, AWOL Republicans

Russell Sadler

Besides the senseless loss of human life and the systematic destruction of America’s reputation around the world, the most frustrating effect of the Bush regime’s war in Iraq is the way it saps our political energy to deal with anything else.

This political paralysis is about to have a profound impact on thousands of Oregonians who live in counties whose land bases are dominated by federal timber land, where the federal government has made payments to local government in lieu of property taxes for decades.

Sens. Gordon Smith and Ron Wyden have tucked the money to resume those payments into the bill funding the Iraq War. President George W. Bush vetoed that bill because it included a non-binding “timetable for withdrawal” in it. The Democrats have now withdrawn any “timetable” from the bill -- to the cries of “sellout” from the anti-war wing of their party -- in an effort to get the bill passed with many of the other riders attached, including the county payments. Bush still opposes the bill, one suspects, because he is using the war as a diversion from the revelations of his administration’s other failures and scandals.

In many of the affected counties, commissioners simply assumed the federal payments would continue indefinitely. When the money failed to materialize, commissioners warned of severe budget cuts and hastily put alternative means of funding on the ballot earlier this month. They all failed with the budget-baiters and government-haters prancing about crying “No means no!”

Now reality intrudes on the ideologues and in hard-hit counties like Jackson, Josephine, Douglas and Lane counties, commissioners are closing libraries, laying off sheriffs’ patrols and reducing public works, public health and other staff. In Curry County, arguably the county most dependent on federal timber payments, there is talk of bankruptcy or actually dissolving the county.

Although the end of federal payments to timbered counties has been predictable for some time, no one in Salem has taken the prospect seriously. Now that the wolf is in the door and standing, snarling, in the living room, there is still no sign of urgency about restructuring local government finances anywhere in Salem.

Oregon Democrats have their hands full picking up the pieces after more than a decade of the Republicans’ reckless borrow-and-spend policies. At least the Democrats have established the long-discussed “Rainy Day Fund” to protect public schools against the next recession that pessimists insist is already here or not far off.

Most of the timbered counties are solidly Republican country. But Oregon Republicans are simply AWOL on the issue, having allied their party with national anti-tax organizations like FreedomWorks that spend their time attacking Democrats for “the largest tax increase in history” and other focus group tested slogans that Oregon voters ignored last November when they swept the Republicans out of both houses.

Oregon Republicans are so single-minded about winning just enough seats to gain control of one or both houses, that they are ignoring just about everything else, which will only alienate the crossover voters who put them in the minority in the first place.

Oregon Democrats have established a modest list of incremental improvements this session. Modesty was to be expected. It took Oregon Republicans more than a decade to create this mess and no one is going to clean it up in six months.

But there is a strange lack of urgency about the severity of the remaining problems. The financial plight of the timbered counties is the tip of the iceberg.

Oregon’s regional universities -- Southern, Eastern and Western -- are in perilous financial shape. Stagnant or declining enrollments are clashing with rising costs because high tuition has priced so many Oregon students out of the market.

The Oregon Department of Transportation’s plans to create a widespread system of toll roads moves ahead like a robot despite public opposition every time a toll road project is unveiled. Toll roads have momentum because no one in Salem is discussing a practical alternative for financing the state’s future transportation needs.

Measure 37 still threatens financial chaos and protracted litigation and the much discussed “fix” doesn’t really solve the problem.

There are a host of other issues that need attention but there is as yet no talk of interim committees or other forums to discuss them between legislative sessions. The inability to form a bipartisan consensus on ways to deal with these issues is disturbing.

The lack of urgency over the pending crisis raises the question whether an entire generation has lost the skill and the will to govern effectively.

  • Karl Smiley (unverified)

    You've done a great job of ennumerating the problems we face in financing our institutions. I wish some one could start pointing to some viable solutions. It's almost impossible to get people to support increased taxes when their incomes are declining and their everyday expenses (like gas) are growing. Does anybody have any ideas?

  • David (unverified)

    I only Saw one Republican in The Whole article and He Ain't much of a republican. The House and Senate in both Jurisdictions are firmly Dem and That leaves You Sir kind of grasping at straws for the Blame Game. Maybe if we would Knock off all the Nanny BS and work toward the center we would Have disaffected Dems like me back in the fold Ya Think?

  • LT (unverified)

    David, The reason the fastest growing party is no party at all is that there are people fed up with both parties. These are people who may admire individuals in both parties but dislike not only partisanship but political dialogue including slogans like "blame game".

    Republicans lost the last election and need to make a decision. They can continue to be the party of FreedomWorks and the anti-taxers, or they can admit that one Republican re-elected in 2006 was Frank Morse---a state senator who reminds some people who grew up Republican what serious, old fashioned Republicans were like: well mannered, hard working, solution oriented.

    If Democrats are the party of political consultants and Republicans are the party of FreedomWorks, more people will just be independent-minded voters and choose individuals over party.

    Russell is right---lots of Republicans have been AWOL from serious intellectual debate. Problems need to be solved, services need to be funded. Such sentences drive anti-taxers nuts. The question is: do partisans want the support of people like me, or just lobbyists, ideologues, and those making a living at politics?

  • Anon (unverified)

    I wonder if "no new taxes" Karen Minnis is opposed to federal timber payments? Where does the money for those payments come from? Did it grow on a tree?????

  • Chainsaw Owner (unverified)

    Maybe if we could harvest the timber on those forest lands - like we used to - those counties would have the money they need?

    Is there anything democrats don't blame bu$h for?

    .....In the meantime: "Pelosi, D-Calif., and seven other House members left Saturday for meetings with scientists and politicians in Greenland, Germany and Belgium on ways to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases."

    I feel good that Nancy and 7 of her friends are jet setting around in europe, trying to find ways to change the weather. I feel so much better now! Go Nancy - save planet EARTH!

  • Tim (unverified)

    Does anyone have any ideas how to solve this problem?

    Come on people!! The Federal Govt's real commitment to counties is allowing them to take a percentage of timber receipts. That is the solution, not a check from the fed govt not to cut trees.

    This concept that republicans don't care about rural counties is laughable. Those with short memories don't remember that it was a republican House and Senate that created this program to temporarily make sure the counties were made whole after the Clinton Administration destroyed the NW timber industry.

    Just some facts for those of you who don't care to use any of them.

    Secure Rural School and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000

    The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination act of 2000 (SRS) (PL 106-393) was enacted to provide transitional assistance to rural counties affected by the decline in revenue from timber harvests in federal lands. Traditionally, these counties relied on a share of receipts from timber harvests to supplement local funding for school systems and roads.

    Saying that republicans in general and Oregon republicans are AWOL on county payments is simply not true and the author knows it.

  • (Show?)

    "Saying that republicans in general and Oregon republicans are AWOL on county payments is simply not true and the author knows it."

    It's ABSOLUTELY true. Wyden and DeFazio have led the way; Gordon Smith has REFUSED to be a part of the discussions. He was offered a seat at the table and declined.

    So cut the horseshit. The Republicans are responsible for creating the attitude that government has too much money, and taxes are too high, despite both being in fact the opposite in Southern Oregon. Now the regular folks are bearing the consequences, and those who championed that state of affairs are silent and absent.

    And I don't recall Clinton cutting down a single tree in Oregon. That would be the rapacious timber industry. They have no one to blame but themselves for their reckless profligacy that created an unustainable industry.

  • (Show?)

    I've never understood this complete "leave me alone and stay out of my life" view of government. 150 years ago, it might have worked when people lived a hundred miles apart and were truly dependent only on themselves. But that doesn't work today. Next time you go to the store for groceries, be sure and think about the government when you don't get sick. Next time you drive down that highway, or enjoy the sewer system that allows you to enjoy indoor plumbing, be sure and get upset about the government's role in making that happen. Next time your kids get up and go catch the school bus, definitely become incensed at how the government had the audacity to send that bus. And god forbid any agency should be so rude as to actually deliver your mail to your door. The audacity is endless.

    As for "I feel good that Nancy and 7 of her friends are jet setting around in europe, trying to find ways to change the weather. I feel so much better now! Go Nancy - save planet EARTH!"

    I'm not sure if you have noticed but...well...yeah...that IS what they are trying to do. Someone has to...the oil companies that own the neocon (and current dominant portion) of the Republican party sure aren't. LT is right. The current forces leading the Republican party don't know a thing about what being a true Republican is, and when counties start dissappearing in Eastern Oregon, and libraries once again become a luxury enjoyed only by the wealthy, and all of those forces outside of Oregon finally accomplish their goal of recreating Oregon in their own image let's hope all of those "leave me be" folks enjoy what's left of their state.

  • 2bluesky2 (unverified)

    I am sure there is lots of blame to go around, but the counties that relied on the timber payments really don't need blame experts now. I think they need to focus on the simple question that Karl and Tim ask: what now?

    I think there are several realities that the timber counties must face:

    -the voters in their counties are not interested in new taxes. Stop wishing. -money won't come from Salem. Democrats in Salem just won't bailout low-property-tax Republican counties. -for the immediate and possibly the foreseeable future, the counties will have to live with what income sources they have.

    There will certainly need to be some radical downsizing of county government. Creating this new environment is totally out of the experience of both Democrats and Republicans who have always assumed that government must constantly grow. Many businesses have dealt with this type of experience, rarely have governments. It may be too much to expect our traditional politicians to successfully transition into the new reality they face.

    I don't pretend to have solutions for the timber counties. I am not a government restructuring expert - though maybe this is a new expertise that will come out of this situation.

    One think I am certain of. There is no need to panic. There may appear to be some temporary chaos. That is natural in all change. I trust the timber county residents will eventually develop their own solutions. When they do, they may provide some interesting lessons for the rest of us.

  • Marvin McConoughey (unverified)

    A compromise is what will happen in the coming loss of federal payments to counties. The one year program extension will provide time for county leaders to develop more intelligent tax proposals than in the recent past. At the same time, counties will have the opportunity to develop greater spine in controlling labor costs and formal job descriptions. A reasonable tax start is to consider a gasoline surcharge to help counties cope with the rising cost of road materials. The greater worry people should have is the economic damage when our twin addictions to rising population and rising trade deficits come home to haunt us.

  • Tim (unverified)

    Hey, Marv....Fine solution....when in doubt just add a tax increase into the mix. How about thinking outside the box and wondering if maybe...just maybe... the federal government should be allowed to manage its natural resources in a sensible way (not the logging of the 70's and 80's, but sensible thinning) that could put money in the county coffers. Maybe we can focus on not allowing all our timber to burn up and contribute to global warming.

  • RBM (unverified)

    Oh Tim - the burning forests contribute to global warming? And while we're at it, I'm going to blame chewing gum for obesity...after all, calories are calories.

  • Penny Howe (unverified)

    I use to enjoy living in southern Oregon.... ..since most if not all the librarys are closed in southern Oregon...For God sake why doesn't someone buy a big house and fill it with book shelves from wall the wall and use that as a privately owned library, or is that against the rules..oh pawshh I know that there are a lot of retired people that have come there to live and there has to be some of them that are giving people. Don't they read?...If you know how to read the whole world is open to open your heart people. The young are our future and we have to make sure they get the best education we can give them... Penny Howe

  • JB (unverified)

    The solution to the problem in S. Oregon is simple. The good folks down there just need to start paying county taxes like the rest of us do. The state average county tax rate is about $3 per $1000 assessed valuation. In Jackson County they pay only 2/3 of the average. In Josephine, the rate is well under $1. Sure there is a lot of federal forest land in these counties, but that's no reason county tax rates should be low. These counties have had a sweet deal from Uncle Sam all these years, but the party is over. They don't deserve any sympathy for not wanting to pay taxes, and they certainly don't deserve any help from Salem.

  • Marvin McConoughey (unverified)

    Tim: No problem here with more intelligent harvesting of county timber resources. Its a fine approach. However, that will not overcome the reality of rising petroleum prices and those prices are best paid for by we who use the resource directly, which translates into higher fuel taxes if we wish to continue using asphalt for roads and to have governments make use of vehicles.

  • Yamhill county Mitch (unverified)

    You will get your money this way...Might as well put a gun to peoples heads and take the money

    Politicians Steal Your Christmas Present

    Democrats Steal Your Christmas Present

    Salem, OR – After three years, the gift card to Best Buy your Grandma gave you for Christmas will no longer belong to you, but to the government. Proving that no wallet is safe while the Legislature is in session, Democrats voted Thursday to allow the state to confiscate the balance on gift cards they think you have been carrying around for too long.

    “This is nothing short of outright theft,” said Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day). “If you buy or received a gift card, the value belongs to you, not the government.”

    Senate Bill 640 allows state government to seize the unused value of a gift card after 3 years from the date of purchase. While the confiscated value of a gift card can be redeemed from the State Department of Lands, it requires filing a complex series of paperwork on behalf of the company or individual. It is anticipated that this measure will take $25 to $35 million from Oregon companies and individuals. The bill passed 16 to 13.

    “Why don’t they just come into our living rooms and steal the change out from under the cushions too?” Ferrioli said. “Where does it end?”

    Senate Bill 640 is but one in a long list of proposals aimed at Oregonian’s wallets this year. Over 100 bills to increase revenue have been introduced to date. With Democrats as the ruling party in Salem for the first time in over a decade, Governor Kulongoski and Democrat leadership have made tax increases among their top priorities this session.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    You all seem to be missing a basic truth.

    The Republicans, at least the corporate interests that support them, like having the County payment crisis. This "crisis" creates the stage for people accepting in their local communities compromises that they would otherwise reject.

    In my County, Crook County, 10 years ago this cutoff of funding would have destroyed us. Today, we will not notice much. Why? Because all those new destination resorts that are turning the western edge of our County into a 50 square mile locked community for the rich of Oregon is saving the budget by generating new property tax revenue. Do the "locals" like having these communities move in on us? No way. But ... they keep the library open.

    Who benefits from the shift in perception about how welcome new developments are? Who? Jeld-Wen is making money hand over fist here among others. And who do they contribute campaign money to?

    Creating crisis's creates opportunities for profit. Need I mention Iraq? The Republican business machine is getting better and better at this.

    Follow the money.

connect with blueoregon