Everybody can understand in theory the need for budget cuts, though few want to see them applied in ways that affect them directly. Even so, being told in advance that funds won’t be available for a program or line item gives people time to regroup and go to Plan B. Or to learn how to do without.
But that isn’t the case with $438,600 the U.S. Forest Service distributed three months ago to Douglas County. Or, for that matter, the $17.9 million the Forest Service paid to 41 states and Puerto Rico as compensation for federal policies that interfere with economic activity on federal lands.
Forest Service officials have decided that wait! — handing out that money was all wrong. Because as it turns out, such payments are not, agency representatives believe, exempt from that political bugaboo known as budget sequestration. The sequester, you may remember, is what lay with open arms at the bottom of the fiscal cliff.
But back to the Forest Service’s recent discovery. Having decided that it was a mistake to issue the payments, the agency is asking everybody to give the money back.
It’s the kind of proposal that calls to mind Ann Richards’ comment at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, when the Texas governor-to-be observed of a certain federal policy, “That old dog won’t hunt.”
We can’t speak for 41 states and Puerto Rico. But according to Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson, there are three months remaining in the county’s current budget year, and most of the Forest Service money has been spent or allocated.
Not to worry. There’s another option. Instead of taking a refund, the Forest Service can reduce the amount it will give to the county for future forest improvement projects. These funds don’t go directly to the county anyway. They’re paid to regional committees tasked with deciding how to improve forest habitat.
One has to wonder how urgently such funds are needed if it takes a table of committee members and Robert’s Rules of Order to make such allocations. Regardless, forgoing such payments is a lot more palatable than fishing around in the county’s none-too-bulging pocket to reimburse the Forest Service for its oops moment. Particularly since the Bureau of Land Management withheld nearly $1 million in safety net payments to Douglas County for similar reasons (though a recent recalculation means the BLM is preparing to release $500,000 to the county after all).
Perhaps the lesson to take away from all this is that it doesn’t pay to get all worked up about government decisions and counter-decisions. No one yet knows how the sequester will play out. Nor how many reversals will cycle through by the time the next payments come due.
Some old dogs not only don’t hunt, but turn out over time to be toothless.