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Timber money

Peter De Fazio

Peter De Fazio

This was a set-up deal – or a pretty good facsimile thereof. The timber payment bill has all the indicators of a partisan ambush, skillfully designed by the House Democrats. (Who knew they were as good at this?) It looks designed to put House Republicans on the spot. Which it did.

They’d have been better off to take the bait and vote to approve the Democratic proposal. What they’ve done instead is close to indefensible back home.

The immediate issue is timber money, the funds the federal government has been providing to rural counties that have a lot of non-property-tax-paying federal lands (especially forest lands) in their boundaries. Authorization for those payments has run out, and a lot of counties, most strongly in southwest Oregon but elsewhere too, are hurting. Congressional delegations through the region, including just about everyone and of both parties – Republicans no less than Democrats – have been trying to get the spigot turned on again.

One question has been, where will the money come from? House Democrats have come up with an answer: Reimposed – they had lapsed some years ago – royalties on offshore oil and gas leases. Republicans in the House have fought reimposition of those royalties for years.

Today the bill, sponsored by Oregon Representative Peter De Fazio, came to a House floor vote and lost, 218-192 (it needed two thirds). The region’s Democrats voted in favor, the Republicans (including Representative Greg Walden, who has pushed hard for timber payments) against, and President George W. Bush had threatened a veto.

You can ask the question, If top priority was getting a funding bill passed, why would De Fazio and his allies run one that was so likely to draw Republican fire and therefore likely doom it? (Of course, finding the money hasn’t been an easy thing regardless – Walden and other Republicans haven’t yet found a winning formula either.) But we suspect that will be superseded by another question: When the choice came to a decision between taxes paid by oil companies and desperately needy counties in the Northwest, why did those Northwest representatives vote on the side of the oil companies? That could be a deadly question.

That is why, as the Oregonian reported this morning, “The House exploded in a spasm of angry, fist-waving debate Wednesday with one Oregon lawmaker [Walden] accusing another Oregon lawmaker [De Fazio] of bad faith and deception over federal aid to depressed rural communities.”

Walden, who had been working with De Fazio on the issue, blasted, “This trail of broken promises and broken process has led us to the first fracture of this effort I can recall. And for what good? So somebody can say you’re for big oil and against teachers and kids? Give me a break.”

Well, maybe. But the question is nonetheless there: When the deal goes down, whose side are you on?

Ironically, this whole blowup isn’t likely to have much effect on either of these principals, since De Fazio is unopposed for re-election this year and Walden will surely cruise over his opponent.

But look over to Idaho, where Republican Representative Bill Sali is seriously opposed, and this from a press release from his opponent, Democrat Walt Minnick: “The people of Idaho sent Bill Sali to Washington to represent their interests,” said John Foster, spokesman for Walt Minnick, an Idaho candidate for Congress. “With one vote, he proved that he cares more about oil companies than he does about Idaho schoolchildren and local governments.”

That’s what they call a talking point.

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