October 12, 2011

Bingaman & Udall Introduce Proposal to Provide Millions for New Mexico Counties

WASHINGTON - U.S. Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall today introduced bipartisan legislation that will extend the life of two initiatives that direct millions of dollars in payments to New Mexico counties to support local employment in schools, county maintenance programs, forest management, and other critical county programs.

The County Payments Reauthorization Act of 2011 (S.1692) would extend for five years the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act - a program that supports counties that rely economically on national forest lands. New Mexico counties would receive as much as $58 million over the next five years under the plan.

The bill would fully-fund the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program for an additional five years. PILT compensates counties for federal land that cannot be a source of property taxes. On average, New Mexico counties share about $35 million in PILT payments annually.

"The Secure Rural Schools and PILT programs make it possible for New Mexico communities to hire public school teachers, fund countless miles of county road projects, and support collaborative forest and watershed restoration projects that reduce the risk of wildfire. The legislation introduced today would make it possible to continue these important services in our state," said Bingaman, who as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee workedwith the Committee's Ranking Member, Lisa Murkowski, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and others to negotiate the proposal.

"Both Secure Rural Schools and PILT have helped New Mexico's rural counties through these trying economic times. The legislation introduced today would ensure these key programs continue to help fund everything from education to construction and maintenance projects that benefit residents and employees alike," Udall said.

The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act supports local public schools, funds county road improvement and maintenance projects, creates jobs conducting forest restoration and improvement projects in and around National Forests, and supports local initiatives to reduce the risk from wildfires. The Act was designed to provide more predictable levels offunding than what would be provided under a 1908 law that gives 25 percent of revenues from National Forest lands to local counties to support their schools and roads. Bingaman led a successful bipartisan effort in 2008 to fund the program through fiscal year 2011, which expired last month. The 2008 reauthorization provided more than $1.75 billion to counties across the country, including more than $250 million in collaborative forest and watershed restoration, wildfire risk reduction, and other community forestry programs.

Under the 2008 law, payments to New Mexico counties were initially increased dramatically and then-like all other counties under the program-were moderately decreased at a rate of 10 percent each year. Under the new plan announced today, the annual reduction would be eased to 5 percent each year.

The bill would also ensure that PILT does not have to be subjected to the annual appropriations process - a process that for years underfunded the program and shortchanged New Mexico counties. As part of the 2008 effort, PILT was guaranteed full-funding through the current fiscal year. Under the new plan, PILT would remain automatically fully-funded until 2017. New Mexico is typically the number one or number two beneficiary of PILT payments.

The bipartisan group leading the effort has agreed to work to find "offsets" to ensure that the plan will not increase the Federal deficit.

In addition to Bingaman and Udall, Senators Murkowski, Baucus, Crapo, Wyden, Risch, Reid, Tester, Feinstein, Bennet, Boxer, Cantwell, and Murray are cosponsoring the legislation.