Simpson meets with local officials to hear concerns
Congressman Mike Simpson met with local elected leaders and base representatives for more than two hours last Wednesday at city hall, listening to a wide range of comments and concerns.
Subjects ranged from PILT money to acquiring water rights for Mountain Home Air Force Base (see related story this issue) to Forest Service management and logging policies.
Local officials such as county commissioner Bud Corbus were concerned about PILT funding. PILT, Payment in Lieu of Taxes, is a federal program that partially compensates counties for federal land, which does not pay property taxes. "This is the feds property tax bill," Simpson said, noting that in Idaho, with two-thirds of the state federally owned, the availability of PILT money can have a huge impact on local government budgets.
PILT, Simpson explained, had historically always been part of the federal government's discretionary funding. But with the TARP vote, it became mandatory funding, and now looks like it will wind up in the Farm Bill. Because it represents a promise of the federal government to local governments, Simpson said he would work to see that the money is permanently funded.
School board chairman Jim Alexander thanked Simpson for his support of Impact Aid legislation, which represents about ten percent of the school district's budget. It represents payments for children of federal employees in a district, such as those who live and work on base (or anyone on a reservation), who generally don't pay property taxes or even some state taxes. Alexander noted that Simpson was an important supporter of Impact Aid. In addition, he said, "thank you for keeping the government open," so the Impact Aid checks could be cut.
Simpson had a series of pithy comments about some of his colleagues who had fought to shut down the government, reminding those attending last week's meeting that "Washington, D.C., is 68 square miles surrounded by reality."
City councilman Russ Anderson, who works for the highway district, expressed his concern about Forest Service management policies, especially logging, noting that after this year's fires, the state had moved quickly to log off damaged timber on its lands, but the feds hadn't.
Simpson agreed that changes needed to be made, and endorsed a "stewardship" program whereby the federal government could enter into a partnership with the state government to manage some of the federal land. Because of the safeguards, and public involvement in the development of the agreements, "I haven't met anyone, environmentalists, anyone, that hasn't been impressed by the Stewardship Contracts Program. "This is how the state and federal government could work together," he said.
He agreed that there needs to be more timber sales, but noted that "there hasn't been a timber sale in years that hasn't been challenged in court," forcing the Forest Service to use significant portions of its precious funding to justify the sales. In some cases, he said, it isn't worth the court costs. But a stewardship program might be able to avoid that problem.
Simpson also pointed out that the Forest Service funding system needs to be changed.
At present, whenever firefighting costs exceed the budgeted ten-year-average, the money has to be pulled from other Forest Service funds, such as those used for forest management. In the past, Simpson said, the Forest Service budget had about 14 percent of its funds allocated to firefighting. But in recent years, firefighting has climbed to more than half of the budget.
Simpson said he'd like to go back to a system where the service allocated firefighting costs based on the old 10-year-average system, and if costs exceeded that then Congress could pass emergency appropriations.
Simpson said the recent coalition of moderate politicians from both parties could result in some long-overdue reforms on government structure and funding that should help bring about some debt reduction. In addition, he said, "I am hopeful that we can have all our appropriations bills" approved by Oct. 1, the start of the next fiscal year. "You would think we can do our job by then," he said, noting that the last six years in which the government has essentially run on continuing resolutions "has been disgraceful."
He warned that moves such as sequestion "are just mindless cuts" that don't address the core issues of federal spending, and warned that "some people think we can slash and burn the defense budget now that we're getting out of Afghanistan and downsizing, but that's just not the case."
He also warned that the federal government has been ignoring the need to replace key parts of the nation's infrastructure "whose life is running out."
For example, he said, there is a need to replace $700 billion in aging sewer and water systems, but the federal government has appropriated only $2.5 billion to deal with the problem. Combined with local matching funds, "it will take us 150 years to replace what we have to fix now."
And as the nation moves away from gasoline to electric vehicles, the gas taxes that pay for roads will decline. "We have to find new, innovative ways to finance things," he said.
"Imagine, if President Eisenhower and Congress hadn't had the vision to build the interstate highway system. Where would we be today? But it's starting to fall apart, and we need a new vision for the future, or we won't have one," he said.