WASHINGTON, D.C. – During a Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee hearing today, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) highlighted the need for full funding of the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program and called for the reinstatement of the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program. Both are critical federal investments that rural counties in New Mexico rely upon.
The 2017 fiscal year spending bill that Congress will vote on this week fully funds $465 million for the PILT program, which provides New Mexico counties with funding for essential services like schools, roads, and public safety, but fails to reinstate SRS. The SRS program was created in 2000 to provide consistent and reliable funding for rural counties and schools located near national forests across the country.
Senator Heinrich questioned witnesses on the impact the absence of SRS funding in the omnibus budget deal will have on rural communities.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that rural communities around the country are hurting—it’s certainly true in New Mexico,” said Sen. Heinrich during the hearing. “The last thing we should be doing is pulling the rug out from under them by ending the Secure Rural Schools program.”
Senator Heinrich expressed concern that critical programs in rural counties are left hanging without the reinstatement of SRS funding. He cited Sierra County’s stalled plans for a desperately needed mental health program because the county has had to redirect funds that would have been covered by SRS for mental health into law enforcement and road projects.
In Cibola County, New Mexico, county officials have had to eliminate all road improvement projects—and will even need to cut back on routine maintenance on school bus routes. This means people in the far reaches of the county are more likely to get trapped at home in bad weather, and school buses are more likely to get stuck on poorly maintained roads.
Senator Heinrich has consistently advocated for full and permanent funding of both PILT and SRS programs. PILT provides federal payments to local governments to help offset losses in property taxes because of nontaxable federal land within their boundaries, and these resources are critical to rural counties across the country, which use the funding to provide services, such as police, fire protection, and emergency response. The SRS program, which benefits rural counties near national forests, supports public schools, public roads, forest health projects, and other county projects.