Heinrich Joins Bipartisan Effort To Reauthorize Secure Rural Schools Program For Rural Counties

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, introduced bipartisan legislation to restore urgently needed federal funding for vital resources in rural counties in New Mexico and across the country. The bill will extend payments to counties for two years by reauthorizing the Secure Rural Schools and Self-Determination (SRS) Act.

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. SRS payments support public schools, public roads, forest health projects, emergency services and many other essential county services for more than 775 counties. The payments expired last year, leaving counties with a lack of certainty about how to fund these critical services in rural areas.

“New Mexicans rely on funding from the Secure Rural Schools program, which helps pay for essential local services like emergency response, education, and transportation,” said Senator Heinrich. “We can’t leave rural communities hanging. Rural counties need these programs, they need them to be reliable, and they need them now.”

Senator Heinrich has consistently advocated for full and permanent funding of the SRS program. Earlier this week, Senator Heinrich questioned witnesses during a committee hearing on the impact of SRS funding in rural communities.

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.

U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash), led the bill introduction in the Senate and House.

Background

This bill:

  • Reauthorizes SRS payments for 2 years—retroactively, to make counties whole for their FY2016 payments and FY2017 (payment goes out in 2018); 
  • Clarifies the use of unelected Title II funds; 
  • Eliminates the merchantable timber pilot requirement; 
  • Clarifies, through a technical fix, the availability of funds per section 207(d)(2); Extends the time available to initiate Title II projects and obligate funds for the 2-year reauthorization; Title II and III Elections: For the 2-year reauthorization, there won’t be enough time to go through the administrative process of the counties changing their elections and still getting their payments on time, so for reauthorization, the counties have to stick with their current elections; 
  • Requires an acceptable offset to pay for the cost of the program to be identified.

A copy of the bill is available here