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US Senate Budget Boosts Firefighting in West

Northwest congressional lawmakers of both parties have finally been able to gain a budgetary foothold on three issues they've been struggling to fund for years. The issues are adequate funding to fight wildfires, federal payments in lieu of school district and road taxes, and general payments to counties with large federal forest lands.

Following a Senate vote-a-rama that stretched into the wee hours last weekend, Idaho Senator Mike Crapo and Oregon Senator Ron Wyden both said that provisions in the budget bill allow for long-term solutions. The language approved by the Senate lifts a funding cap for wildfire budgets, for example, giving Wyden and Crapo a chance to offer their Wildfire Disaster Funding Act.

Their goal is to treat western wildfires like any other natural disaster - hurricanes, tornadoes or floods - without forcing the US Forest Service to borrow money from other functions to pay for them.

There's a big if in the budget bill, however. The Crapo-Wyden bill could be approved only if doesn't affect the national debt over the next ten years. In other words, if the two lawmakers want their wildfire bill to pass, they must either find an offsetting budget reduction or find new money somewhere to pay for it.

The same thing goes for the Secure Rural Schools legislation and the Payment in Lieu of Taxes for local and county financial support.

Even with the new authorization, it's far from clear whether money can actually be appropriated for the programs.

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