An effort to return some federal payments already made to counties that contain national forest lands, including Lincoln County, is being questioned by the chair of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-WA, on Monday wrote to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell. The automatic federal budget cuts under sequestration prompted the move to retrieve money already distributed.
In the letter to the Forest Service chief, Hastings noted Tidwell stated during an April 11 hearing that he "had 'personally pursued every avenue ... to find a different solution,' yet it was concluded that a percentage must be returned to the (Forest) Service to account for budget shortfalls from sequestration and that failure to do so would result in penalties."
Hastings wrote the Forest Service's retroactive sequestering of the Secure Rural Schools money seemed inconsistent with the law and appeared to be an attempt by the Obama administration to make sequestration "as painful as possible."
A month ago the Lincoln County Commission was told about $26,000 in Secure Rural Schools funding might be in danger.
Lincoln County Manager Nita Taylor has been attempting to get answers.
"I wanted to know what the deal was and what we could expect," Taylor said Thursday.
"I asked the (U.S.) Department of the Interior regarding PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes)," Taylor said. "And I asked about SRS (Secure Rural Schools). That's when he told me it's being quietly debated in Congress.
Two federal programs, Secure Rural Schools, which includes a component know as Title II, and Payment in Lieu of Taxes, assist Lincoln County because of the tax-exempt federal lands in the county.
Across New Mexico, the SRS impact to counties would total about $600,000. A late March letter to 41 states from Tidwell said 5.1 percent of the money that had been disbursed earlier this year must be returned.
Hastings has requested documentation "to understand" the Forest Service's authority and rationale in demanding the repayments. A June 3 deadline for answers was included in the Natural Resources Committee chair's letter.
"Recognizing the importance the SRS funds hold for education and providing emergency services to rural communities and the questionable timing and legal basis on which the (Forest) Service has justified this action, the governors of Alaska, Wyoming and Washington recently announced they will not permit the (Forest) Service to take the funds their states were rightfully paid," Hastings said.
Correspondence to Taylor from an official with the New Mexico Association of Counties indicated the state did not anticipate an actual repayment through checks cut by counties.
"You are correct that the counties would not have to physically issue a repayment," Brenda Suazo-Giles, with the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration wrote in an email that was part of information forwarded to Taylor. "However, the amount of Title II held on their behalf by the U.S. Treasury will be reduced. I could attempt to prorate the reduction by county, however the Forest Service hasn't given any instruction," the April 23 email stated. How the repayment would be rectified was unclear.
A contingent of congressional members had previously sent a letter to the country's agriculture secretary and the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget. It requested a halt to the action and questioned the legal authority to demand repayment of funds that had already been paid out.