The latest apparent impact of the so-called “sequestration legislation” – the complex set of automatic federal spending cuts put into law by President Barack Obama in August 2011 – is an effort to force states and local governments to return funds appropriated in lieu of state and local taxes on federal lands.
The U.S. Forest Service is using sequestration as the basis for trying to force dozens of states to return $17.9 million in federal subsidies. Under the gun are so-called county payments. County payments are a federal-state revenue sharing plan that has been in place virtually since the inception of the national forest program by President Teddy Roosevelt.
Since 1908, hundreds of counties in states with national forests received a quarter of the revenue from the timber cut and sold from federal lands.
Those funds served in lieu of the collection of local property taxes and subsidized schools, roads and first-responder services around the country – despite the fact that the local governments receiving the payments have long questioned the equity of taking the federal timber payments in lieu of property taxes. The Supreme Court ruled shortly after the inception of national forests that state and local governments could not tax national forest lands.
In the current political squabble, the USFS claims the agency has no choice but to claw back a portion of the country payments. State and local governments are pushing back and the crux of the argument now appears to be whether the funds are subject to sequestration because of the year it was paid – 2013 – as the Obama administration claims or exempt from the claw-back because of the year the funds were generated – 2012 – as the states insist.
In Mississippi alone, the Obama administration is seeking the return of some $305,467 in federal Secure Rural Schools payments to the state made by the U.S. Forest Service. U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas L. Tidwell notified Gov. Phil Bryant of the demand by letter in March.
There are about 1.172 million acres of federal national forest lands in Mississippi in 32 counties controlled by the USFS. The 518,587-acre DeSoto National Forest covers parts of 10 counties, including Perry, Wayne, Harrison, Forrest, Stone, Greene, Jones, Jackson, George, and Pearl River counties.
The 191,839-acre Homochitto National Forest covers parts of Franklin, Amite, Wilkinson, Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln and Copiah counties. The 178,541-acre Bienville National Forests covers parts of Scott, Smith, Jasper and Newton counties. The 67,005-acre Tombigbee National Forest covers parts of Winston, Choctaw and Oktibbeha counties.
The 155,661-acre Holly Springs National Forest covers parts of Benton, Lafayette, Marshall, Yalobusha, Tippah and Union counties. And the 60,898-acre Delta National Forest covers Sharkey County.
What is most infuriating for state and local governments is that the “county payments” are arbitrarily influenced by USFS environmental policies ñ which means when the federal government wants to protect wildlife like the red cockaded woodpecker or the gopher frog, timber is no longer cut on affected federal lands and the payments in lieu of taxes to the local schools cease or dry up to a trickle.
For a century, Mississippi counties have had to ride this economic and environmental rollercoaster. Now, the Obama administration is using the county payments as leverage in the sequestration fight? Somewhere, Teddy Roosevelt is shaking his head and looking for that fabled big stick.
Look for Mississippi to dig in against returning these payments along with Alaska and the Western states. In comparison with the “claw-backs” in states like Oregon – which is being asked to pay back $3.6 million in county payments – Mississippiís $305,467 seems more palatable.
But in counties like Scott – where such a vast portion of the total land in the county is contained in the national forest and thereby not subject to property taxes – the principle of the Obama administrationís “claw-back” proposal is particularly grating to those who do pay property taxes to support the schools.
SID SALTER is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or sidsalter@ sidsalter.com.