WASHINGTON, D.C. — Members of Oregon's congressional delegation say they are pleased with a spending package approved Feb. 14 to avert a second partial government shutdown in 2019, highlighting multiple provisions for agriculture and rural communities.
While controversy continues to swirl around President Donald Trump and the fight to secure funding for a wall along the southern border with Mexico, the latest spending bill will keep the government open through at least the end of the fiscal year on Oct. 1.
Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, along with Republican Rep. Greg Walden, each issued statements in support of the deal, which contains additional money for agricultural research, wildfire prevention, rural broadband and Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, in counties with large swaths of federally owned land.
Merkley, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee, said the package secures $1.2 million to fight sudden oak death in southwest Oregon. The tree-killing disease was first discovered in the state in Curry County in 2001, and has since spread over 525 square miles from Brookings north to Gold Beach.
For the third consecutive year, the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations program — administered by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service — also received $150 million, including $25 million set aside for irrigation modernization projects in Central Oregon, where farmers in the Upper Deschutes Basin are working to conserve water and preserve habitat for the Oregon spotted frog.
Another $4 million is earmarked for work in the Klamath Basin, including $3.5 million to restore fish habitat and boost healthy populations of endangered shortnose and Lost River suckers in Upper Klamath Lake. Last year, the Klamath Tribes sued three federal agencies seeking more water in Upper Klamath Lake to protect the fish, further limiting irrigation for farmers and ranchers.
Funding for rural broadband internet connections increased roughly tenfold over previous years to approximately $550 million, Merkley said. Broadband is an increasingly important component in agriculture as more farm technology relies upon high-speed internet — though Merkley said the administration has been slow designing a grant program and deciding how to spend the money.
"We're trying to get the details so we can help Oregon communities apply," Merkley told reporters during a conference call.
Wyden and Merkley issued a joint press release on Feb. 15 in which they expressed relief at avoiding a second government shutdown in three weeks.
"These bipartisan spending bills fund important programs for rural communities across Oregon, and should have been passed months ago," Merkley said.
Walden, who represents rural eastern and central Oregon and is the state's only Republican congressional member, said he was also pleased with the deal, pointing to $3.9 billion in wildfire programs — including $624 million to thin overstocked forests — and $2 million for the USDA Agricultural Research Service to continue studying resilient dryland wheat farming practices.
In addition to money for wheat research, the bill puts a federal weight exemption for sugar beet growers in communities like Ontario, Vale and Nyssa, shipping their product to Idaho on non-interstate highways using trucks weighing up to 120,000 pounds.
"By lifting an onerous transportation regulation on Oregon's sugar beet growers, they will be able to use the same trucks on the Oregon and Idaho highways to haul their beets," Walden said.
With another wildfire season on the horizon, Walden said it is critical for the government to help pay for forest management projects, especially thinning hazardous fuels, to reduce the threat of mega-fires.
"Actively managing the dense fire fuels that have built up in our forests will help prevent the catastrophic wildfires that pollute our skies and choke Oregon's communities with smoke," Walden said.
Both Walden and Merkley praised fully funding the Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, program at $500 million, which allows rural counties to offset property tax losses due to nontaxable federal lands within their boundaries.
"Because the majority of the land in our district is controlled by the federal government, the PILT program provides vital funds to rural Oregon," Walden said.