PORTLAND (AP) — Oregon’s struggling timber counties need to consider raising taxes, or find some other form of revenue, if they are going to get through the financial crisis that was triggered by the loss of federal timber subsidies, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden said.
Wyden raised the sensitive tax topic in a list of seven principles he made public last week, The Oregonian reported Tuesday.
The document was designed as a road map for a 14-member advisory panel that Gov. John Kitzhaber appointed to forge an agreement that can be presented to Congress by the end of the year.
When timber harvests plummeted, reducing revenue shared with the counties, Congress approved direct payments to the counties. The last checks go out in coming months. The counties have been cutting services sharply and some could face bankruptcy. The goal is to raise $100 million a year for the counties.
If Democrats keep control of the Senate, Wyden is almost certain to chair the committee that will handle any legislation to create a replacement for the timber payments program.
Wyden’s principles acknowledge that rural counties have high unemployment but say they “need to do their part in reducing disparities in tax rates” and develop local revenue. Currently, the counties in question have some of the lowest tax rates in Oregon.
Wyden said he offered the set of principles to force the consensus he says is necessary to build a national coalition and get a bill through Congress. Although the principles are in broad language, he declined in an Oregonian interview to be more precise, saying that’s the job of the advisory panel.
Panel member Doug Robertson, a Douglas County commissioner and chairman of a group of the timber counties, said raising local taxes “isn’t going to be a major topic of discussion.”
“Even in good times it’s hard to raise taxes,” he said.
Among the other points Wyden makes: old growth forests should be protected, management has to comply with all federal laws, and the plan should ensure “sustainability.”
He also cast doubt on a plan offered by Democratic Reps. Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader and Republican Rep. Greg Walden. They proposed turning what are known as the O&C lands controlled by the federal government in Western Oregon into a pair of quasi-public trusts, with one managed to produce timber, and the other for fish and wildlife.
While he didn’t write off the trust concept entirely, Wyden noted “the general opposition to private management of federal lands in Congress.”
Robertson, however, said the trust approach is the preferred, and for the time being, is the only arrangement being considered.