I can generally count on listening to NPR on my way to or from work without hearing any news, good or bad, from southern Oregon. The neck of the woods from which I hail just doesn't draw national media attention all that often. However, much of my commute this morning was taken up by this story. It didn't make for a good start to my day.
For those who don't want to listen to or read the story, here are the broad strokes: for many years, the federal government made a shit-ton of money off logging federal timberlands. This happened all over the country, but it happened a disproportionate amount in Oregon. Because the land was federal, the profits weren't taxable under state income tax (which is one of Oregon’s main revenue sources, as there is no sales tax there). This was, understandably, a fiscal disaster, so in order to moderate it, the government gave grants to counties in which it logged.
This worked for quite a while, until logging on federal forestland was pretty much shut down in the 1990s. Since they weren't making any dough from logging in those counties anymore, the feds no longer wanted to give them annual grants. So, in 2000, Congress passed a safety net measure, stating that they would continue to pay the counties for six years, in amounts based on past timber harvests. This amounted to a $400 million subsidy every, of which Oregon received the biggest chunk, about $150 million.
And now time is up. The last of the checks were sent out in December. And all hell is breaking loose.
For example, the NPR piece noted, Jackson County, the southern Oregon county that includes the city of Medford, is closing all 15 of its public libraries. Not cutting back hours, or restricting the purchase of new materials--closing them completely. Next door in Josephine County (which is admittedly less populous), police services are going to be reduced to the point of one squad car patrolling an area roughly the size of Rhode Island. And in my home county, Douglas County, lay-offs in public education and the road department are planned to start any time.
Oregon is not a rich state. It's become a less and less rich state since timber busted and flat-lined. This is, in some of southern Oregon, what has to feel like a crimp in the ventilator line. Perhaps a fatal one.
The question of whether or not it is the state's own fault is complicated. On one hand, they should have known for the last six years that these funds were going to end this year. On the other hand, even if they did know, given the dismal resources county commissioners were faced with (low income tax returns due to high joblessness and a pathetic economy being the biggest), how much could they really do? And does the amount the federal government has already remitted really come anywhere close to paying the state and counties back for the tremendous federal benefit received from logging all of those public lands? And then, of course, the biggest question--should logging on federal land really have been near-completely shut down at all?
Several Oregon politicians were interviewed for the piece, including Congressman Peter DeFazio, who is currently working to pass an emergency one-year extension of the subsidies. The most interesting, though, was Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson. The piece stated that Robertson "assumed that Republicans would take care of these rural, "red" counties in the waning hours of the last session." But they didn't. Then he assumed they would pick it up in the lame-duck session. They didn't. Then he thought they'd have a plan when they returned in January. They don't. His quote was clearly one of a rural man discouraged with the party that is supposed to look out for rural folks.
Maybe I'm just in an optimistic mood, but to me, that sounds like silver lining. If this disaster helps people in rural Oregon (and maybe the other places where this is happening as well) realize that no, the Republicans really aren't their champions in Congress, then maybe it's worthwhile. For far too long, poor people, especially rural poor people, have been snowed into thinking conservative politics are in their best economic interests, when time and time again it has been shown that they aren't, that conservative politicians want to gut programs the poor need to survive, roll back laws that protect them, then give all the tax breaks to the rich. It is only stuff like this that drives home the impact that these corporate-loving Republican assholes are really having. May this be one of the final nails in their coffin.