Long-term county payments deal left out of war spending bill

Dan Berman, E&E Daily senior reporter

The $124 billion conference report now heads for votes in the House and Senate, as well as toward President Bush's expected veto. The bill does include $425 million for a one-year extension of the payments to timber counties, $500 million for wildland firefighting and billions of dollars for salmon fishers, agriculture disaster relief and other domestic programs.

During debate in the Senate last month, lawmakers added a $5 billion plan for two largely Western grant programs: the Secure Rural Schools Act and Payment in Lieu of Taxes.

Under the provision, $2.8 billion over five years would go to counties and states affected by the loss of timber revenue from federal land and $1.9 billion would fully fund PILT from fiscal 2008 through 2011. Various "tax loopholes" would be used to offset the cost of the amendment.

Although the report includes $425 million for rural schools in fiscal 2007 listed as emergency funding that is not offset, lawmakers are still looking long term.

"It's an issue that will have to be revisited either on the return bill or a year from now," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told E&E Daily in an interview.

And lawmakers were already looking ahead to the likely veto.
"We all know this bill is going nowhere fast," said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), noting the bill includes "countless unrelated and costly spending items that have nothing to do with the war on terror or recovery of the Gulf Coast."

Recognizing the likely veto, Lewis and House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) urged swift passage of the measure. "The best thing we can do regardless of our view on this issue is to pass this supplemental as soon as possible so he can take action," Obey said.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) praised the final bill for including nearly $7 billion for Gulf Coast recovery but said various programs and parishes still need help. "Y'all just hold on to your hats because we've got a long way to go," she said.

Domestic spending

Along with the rural schools funds for 2007, the conference report also includes $500 million to establish a reserve account dedicated to emergency wildland firefighting. The bills would make the money available to the Interior Department and Forest Service if the agencies spend the funds already allocated for fiscal 2007 and work to reduce costs.

The bill would provide $12 million to the Forest Service to respond to problems caused by international drug trafficking on federal lands. The money would be used for upgraded equipment and training, and to provide for better coordination with other federal agencies. Last year, federal authorities seized nearly 3 million marijuana plants from public lands, valued at between $10 billion and $15 billion, according to the House Appropriations Committee.

About $60 million for salmon fishers and tribes in Northern California and Oregon is included. The money would address the salmon fishery failure on the Klamath River. Last August, the Commerce Department declared a commercial fisheries failure for California and Oregon, only the second time such as declaration was made before the end of the fishing season.

Chemical security

The conference bill also retains language that would allow states to enact chemical plant security standards that are tougher than the new federal program.
The Department of Homeland Security earlier this month finalized interim rules for protecting chemical facilities from terror attacks. In issuing the rules, DHS claimed authority to pre-empt state programs if they "conflict with, hinder, pose an obstacle to or frustrate" the federal security standards.

DHS officials say they do not envision pre-emption of any current state programs. But this has not reassured lawmakers in New Jersey and elsewhere who support the supplemental bill language due to concerns that DHS could impede future efforts.

Sen. Frank Launtenberg (D-N.J.) said in a statement that the supplemental language sends a message that the Bush administration "should not be stopping our states from protecting themselves." But the bill faces a promised veto from the president over Iraq troop language, making its ultimate fate unclear.

The bill also provides the Department of Homeland Security an additional $12 million for chemical security efforts, according to the spending committees.

Senior reporter Ben Geman contributed to this report.