Report: Obama administration used sequester to squeeze rural schools

Katie McHugh Associate Editor
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A new report released by the Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee argues that the Obama administration went “out of its to make sequestration as ‘painful as possible'” by retroactively stripping rural schools in struggling communities of their federal funding.

The Obama administration simultaneously handed out essential funds to states with chunks of federal land and ordered states to return them as the political battle over sequestration cuts raged.

Back in 2000, Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools and the Community Self-Determination Act to stop timber-rich counties from hemorrhaging revenue after the government forbid most logging on federal lands.

The U.S. Forest Service previously issued states “county payments,” grants worth 25 percent of the revenue generated by timber from national forests to fund schools and maintain roads on federal land.

The 2000 law introduced a six-year transition during which counties would be paid the average of three previously profitable years. The counties would then scramble to find other sources of revenue, and Congress would push for more timber harvests.

The 2000 law also stipulated that 20 percent of the payments must be earmarked for specific purposes — determined by committees run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — or the states must hand them back to the Treasury.

Schools and roads took top priority, while a small amount was left over for rescue services and forest fire prevention.

But the Obama administration endangered the rural schools the 2000 Act meant to prop up by demanding that states return the recalculated county payments already distributed by the USDA and reauthorized by President Barack Obama in 2012, according to the committee’s report.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack promised in March to grant the full $323 million owed to states and Puerto Rico — even as the Bureau of Land Management informed them their funds would be reduced by 10 percent, thanks to the sequester put in place two years ago by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Later in March, as the Department of Agriculture distributed the funds, the U.S. Forest Service ordered the states return $17.9 million they already received.

“Given the change in USDA’s legal analysis, pressure by the White House, and the desire for consistency at all costs, it is clear that Congress, states, and rural communities were right to question whether these decisions were correct and made for any reason other than to make sequestration as visible and painful as possible in rural communities across the country,” the report states.

Whether or not the White House will allow cash-strapped rural communities to keep their 2012 funds — and the fate of the program itself — is unclear.

Neither the USDA or the Office of Management and Budget fully complied with the committee’s subpoenas, and both offices’ senior officials ignored pointed invitations to testify before the committee’s Wednesday hearing.

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Katie McHugh