Timber payments legislation blocked

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer January 17, 2014 09:56 pm

WASHINGTON — House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R:Wash.) blocked an attempt Thursday by Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio to advance legislation that would repay rural counties the portions of timber payments revoked by the U.S. Forest Service due to sequestration.

DeFazio, D-Springfield, who is the committee’s ranking member, asked for unanimous consent to add several bills to the agenda during Thursday’s business meeting. Those bills included H.R. 3886, his bill that would refund the portions of 2012 Secure Rural Schools payments that the Forest Service rescinded after the mandatory budget cuts of sequestration went into effect on March 1, 2013. In total, the Forest Service required counties to return $17.9 million, including $3.4 million from Oregon. 

The bill would also make SRS payments exempt from sequestration in the future.

DeFazio also wanted to discuss H.R. 3879, introduced by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., which would re-establish federal Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT. The program compensates counties for the lack of taxes on federal lands, and it expired last year.

“We aren’t spending time legislating in problem areas that impact us,” DeFazio said. “Is the committee here putting together a task force, holding a hearing, or proposing legislation to fix PILT?”

Last year, Oregon counties received almost $15.6 million in PILT payments. Deschutes County received $1.75 million, Crook County $311,000 and Jefferson County $325,000.

Hastings denied DeFazio’s request, and returned to the business meeting’s agenda, which was to secure the committee’s approval to expand his power to subpoena documents and compel testimony from Obama administration officials. 

Earlier in the week, the House Natural Resources Committee held an oversight hearing on the Obama administration’s response to subpoenas issued by Hastings to determine how the decision was made to retroactively apply sequestration to 2012 payments, which the Forest Service released in January 2013.

At that hearing, a Department of Agriculture official testified that, although the committee requested documents in May, he did nothing to respond to that request until after Hastings issued subpoenas in September.

Emails released Tuesday by the committee showed a lack of clarity within the Department of Agriculture over whether sequestration applied to the 2012 payments, and discomfort on behalf of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget over the different approaches taken by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, which withheld 10 percent of its SRS payments.

“On all of these investigations, we faced a lack of cooperation from the Obama administration. Requests for information go unanswered or are delayed for months. Documents are withheld in their entirety or heavily redacted, and there’s a refusal to make witnesses available for questioning,” Hastings said Thursday. “From an oversight standpoint that’s just unacceptable.”

The committee voted 26-14, along party lines, to give Hastings more leeway to issue subpoenas on several issues, including the SRS sequestration decision and secret meetings involving settlements of actions under the Endangered Species Act.

“Subpoenas are not the preferred option, and I don’t want to be forced to have to compel testimony and information from the administration,” said Hastings.

DeFazio noted that the Department of the Interior had provided the committee 40,000 pages of documents at a cost of $1.5 million to taxpayers.

“What are we investigating? … Something the OMB did that overruled something the Forest Service did. Wow, that’s a conspiracy!” said DeFazio. 

“There’s this idea that somehow deep down inside there’s this political conspiracy, because this is such a masterful administration, that they can hide things and they can manipulate things and do things to the detriment of the American people. 

“Guess what, I am here to tell you that this administration, in the opinion of this member of Congress, is not politically masterful at anything.”

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said he agreed with DeFazio, and the SRS and PILT bills deserved hearings.

It’s possible that Congress will deal with PILT elsewhere. 

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, has spoken about the issue with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Andrew Malcolm, Walden’s spokesman. Walden has received assurances from House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., that funding for PILT will be included in the pending Farm Bill, Malcolm said.

In 2013, Oregon received almost $100 million in timber payments, including $36 million from the BLM for the 18 counties of Western Oregon. 

Deschutes County received $1.8 million, Crook County $1.7 million and Jefferson County $570,000. Last year, Congress passed a one-year extension of the SRS program at the same funding level as the previous year.