Sen. Cantwell in effort to restore the Secure Rural Schools Program

Sen. Maria Cantwell

Sen. Maria Cantwell

PORT TOWNSEND — U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell is pushing new legislation for restoring the Secure Rural Schools Program, which has historically provided funding for a number of projects on the Olympic Peninsula as well as a number of local school districts.

“The White House does not seem to understand the need for the SRS program or the PILT program [Payment In Lieu of Taxes], nor the impact they have on local governments and local economies across the West,” said Cantwell, D-Washington, on Tuesday.

“These two programs are what pay for schools, roads and emergency services in our rural communities.”

Cantwell’s remarks came Tuesday at the opening of a Capitol hearing on the need for the bill that was to be introduced Wednesday, according to a prepared statement.

Cantwell was set to introduce the bill Wednesday along with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

According to the press release from the Senate Committee on Energy and National Resources, of which Cantwell is the ranking member, the current White House Budget Blueprint does not fund the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) Program and has no plan to extend it.

The program provides revenue to 755 rural counties, including both Jefferson and Clallam counties. It helps timber-rich counties pay for infrastructure projects and supports school districts near federal forest lands.

The program was last reauthorized for two years April 16, 2015.

According to Jefferson County Commissioner Kate Dean, payments from the SRS program accounted for roughly 25 percent of the county’s operating budget for road projects until 2008 with an annual payment of $1.3 million. Dean said another $1.3 million went to schools from Jefferson County’s SRS yearly allocation.

“Unfortunately, in subsequent years the SRS payment decreased to only $400,000 per year under this program, and the last payment the county received was for [fiscal year] 2015,” said Dean in a letter of support she submitted for Tuesday’s hearing. “To deal with the dramatic cutback, the county has continued to defer maintenance on pavements, bridges and culverts and has eliminated several positions that went along with this work.”

Dean said lower funding levels have presented challenges for the county, but having no funding from the SRS program would be “unsustainable.”

The SRS program payments were also a huge financial resource for the county in the efforts to repair roads after the particularly rough winters in 2014 and 2015, according to Dean’s letter.

In Clallam County, SRS program funds financed the Elwha River Bridge project, according to Clallam County Board of Commissioners Chair Mark Ozias.

“That would’ve been a real difficult project to pull off without that funding,” Ozias said.

In 2013, Clallam County received $866,000 from the SRS program. That number was ratcheted down in 2014 and 2015, but Ozias didn’t have specific figures Wednesday.

“Local governments depend on these programs to function, and I know that we need to have these programs now and give certainty to our local governments,” Cantwell said Tuesday in the hearing in Washington, D.C.

The SRS program also funds 4,400 schools across 41 states, including Washington. As it’s currently unfunded in the White House budget plan, this leave schools uncertain of their financial future.

“If restored, the program would provide an important revenue stream for school districts in the county,” Ozias said. “We’re supportive of Senator Cantwell’s proposal to reinstate the SRS program.”

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Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Cydney McFarland can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 55052, or at cmcfarland@peninsuladailynews.com.

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