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  Comments (0) Total Thursday Apr. 24, 2014
Highway Robbery
The two chambers are trying to reach a deal as a June deadline looms
The presidential election is just four-and-a-half months away and few politicians will risk giving up ground before they know the results. So, until November and beyond, expect a lot of complaints about nothing getting done by the people in Washington, DC who aren’t getting anything done.

But there still is what most of us would consider essential work that we have every right to expect our elected officials to complete despite the paralyzing election season. And there is perhaps no better example of that than the federal highway bill, which right now is functioning on a 90-day extension.

Northwest Montana has more at stake than most in this piece of legislation, which is being negotiated in Congress this week, as counties and schools here have come to rely on the Secure Rural Schools Act and Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program, both of which are up for renewal but have unclear fates.

The Secure Rural Schools Act has provided money to local municipalities since 2000 in response to declining federal forest revenues. PILT, established in 1976, was created to offset lost property taxes on nontaxable federal lands. Western Montana is filled with federal land so our local governments disproportionately benefit from these programs. But to be clear, these aren’t handouts.

Nearly 80 percent of land within Lincoln County’s borders is government owned. And last year it received more money – over $4 million – from the Secure Rural Schools Act than any other county. For a rural county like Lincoln, the ramifications of discontinuing the program would be huge. Road and school budgets would be decimated and the school superintendent there said the mill levy would have to be increased by 16 mills to make up the difference – a sizable tax increase.

Flathead County has received $3.8 million combined from its last two PILT and Secure Rural Schools Act payments. The programs provide about 20 percent of the road department budget and Dave Prunty, the county’s public works director, acknowledges that it would be “detrimental” if the money ceased.

In previous Congresses passing something like the highway bill would have been relatively easy. But times have changed. After the U.S. Senate with bipartisan support passed a one-year extension of the highway bill that included renewals of the abovementioned programs, the House balked. Instead, it passed the 90-day extension and the Senate, facing a deadline, was forced to agree to it.

Now the two chambers are trying to reach a deal as a June deadline looms. One provision that House Republicans want to include in the transportation measure is language that mandates the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Canada to Texas and has to receive a permit from President Barack Obama’s administration.

“This highway bill is touted as a jobs bill, and there is no question that Keystone would create jobs,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said last week.

Great. Include it in the highway bill. But let’s also discuss the fallout from discontinuing PILT and the Secure Rural Schools Act, which would raise taxes in timber counties across the country.

And as Congress fails to agree on a long-term highway bill extension, it is actually costing us jobs. Amid uncertainty over funding, Montana contractors “can’t sign new contracts, hire more workers, or plan for the future,” Deb Poteet, owner of Poteet Construction, and Dave Zinke, president of Knife River Corporation’s Montana operations, wrote in a letter to the state’s newspapers.

We have come to expect very little from this Congress. After all, it can barely come to agreements that avoid the entire federal government from shutting down. But the highway bill is essential, not just for the country’s highways, but for counties like ours that are filled with federally owned land that we can’t do anything with and doesn’t contribute to our coffers.

And if PILT and the Secure Rural Schools Act are not renewed, then Congress needs to acknowledge that it just raised our taxes.
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