A budget ax over 'Harry Potter crowd'

In a corner of southwestern Oregon, a century's worth of American history is bumping up against the politics of federal spending. As a result, all 15 public libraries in Jackson County could be shuttered in a few weeks for loss of federal payments.

Washington, Alaska, Montana, and other states would be affected as well. In California, more than 4,500 schools face imminent teacher and administrator layoffs.

As a portion of President Bush's $2.9 trillion budget sent to Congress Monday, not much money is involved: about $800 million or so. But the cutoff in funding has united lawmakers across the political spectrum – from Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska on the right to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California on the left. Normally mild- mannered Sen. Gordon Smith (R) of Oregon is threatening to filibuster a $464 billion continuing resolution meant to fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year because of what is, in essence, a quirk of history.

The controversy also highlights the difficulties of fairly allocating federal money in rural areas where the government owns so much of the land. On one hand, federal ownership crimps growth and constrains the tax base. On the other hand, residents in some of these localities pay less in state and local taxes than residents in other states.

The story starts about 100 years ago when Congress allotted 25 percent of timber harvest revenues from national forests to rural counties and school districts. Forty-one states around the country benefited from the program, mostly in the West where much (in some states most) of the land is owned by the federal government.

"For generations, these timber receipts provided funds to offset the fact that local communities cannot tax the federal government," Senator Smith said on the floor of the Senate recently.

Then came federal environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act. Combined with what critics said was overcutting and the loss of timber jobs, the industry saw its revenues fall by some 70 percent in the 1990s. As a result, says Smith, "When timber harvest evaporated, so did county budgets."

In 2000, Congress passed the "Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act" meant to make up the difference. It covered more than 700 counties in 39 states, with Oregon getting the largest amount because it had been most affected – including when the federal government back in 1937 took over more than 2 million acres of timberland from a railroad company charged with fraud.

But that law expired last year. With budget deficits and expensive foreign wars, western lawmakers face an uphill battle getting it renewed.

"Frankly, it's a tough sell," says John Snider, a congressional staffer for Rep. Greg Walden (R) of Oregon. "Back East, they can tax almost every piece of land."

As a result, says Jackson County commissioner Dave Gilmour, "We're now in a terrible situation with funding." At a recent public forum in the old National Guard armory in Ashland, Ore., he said the county plans to lay off 30 positions in health and human services, reduce the number of jail beds, and cut back on information technology slots.

But it's the libraries that have gotten the most attention. Rallies have been held, and book lovers have packed public hearings.

At a county commission meeting last week, grade-schooler Bronson Samel-Garloff could barely see over the podium as he offered the perspective of the "Harry Potter" crowd: "I'm reading three series of books right now, so I guess I'll have to buy the rest of them."

Erin Brender juggled her squirming 11-month-old son Sulayman as the two of them led those present in a chorus of "Itsy Bitsy Spider." The point, she said, was that "the-babies-in-the-library program lays the foundation for a lifetime of literacy and learning."

Not everyone feels this way. In letters to the editor and website postings, some have questioned the place of libraries filled with books when more and more people are getting their information online. Others wonder why federal taxpayers should foot the bill when the per capita state and local tax burden here is lighter than in 34 other states. And there are those who say the situation argues for a resumption of logging.

However it turns out, it's one more chapter in the continuing story of a region transitioning from "old West" economies based on natural resources to a "new West" of high-tech and recreation.

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