14 top cops: Feds keeping money owed to rural areas

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been withholding money it should pass along to rural schools and small towns, the top legal officials from 14 states said.

The Obama administration decided to “misuse” a 2011 budget law to withhold money that ought not be affected by federal sequestration, 14 attorneys general, including Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, said in a letter sent last week to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The programs cited by the attorneys general were drafted as pass-through programs or federal programs intended to replace money lost when timbering or other activities were prohibited on national forests or grasslands.

The Secure Rural Schools program was to be funded with that money, but was deemed to be subject to sequestration.

“A substantial portion of the funding for (Secure Rural Schools) payments comes directly from federal receipts that should be passed through to states and counties and ... not subject to sequestration,” the attorneys general wrote.

The letter from the Conference of Western Attorneys General also said money from the 25 Percent Fund and Bankhead Jones Farm Tenant Act was inappropriately subjected to sequestration — a 5 percent reduction in federal spending mandated in a budget deal in 2011.

At issue is about $665,000 in funding related to timber sales and about $50,000 in other money, including money from grazing fees.

The amounts are small, but to “small counties that are struggling anyway,” they’re significant, said Bonnie Petersen, executive director of Club 20, the Western Slope advocacy organization.

“These funds are statutorily guaranteed to states and counties where national forests and grasslands are located and are vital to their local economies and citizens,” the letter said.

The Secure Rural Schools program was intended to make up for money that would have been received from logging projects in the affected jurisdictions. Payments from ranchers to graze animals on public lands also were inappropriately included in sequestration, the letter said.

The issue is similar to that of the Interior Department withholding the states’ share of money paid to lease minerals owned by the federal government.

Interior Department officials last month said they would return sequestered money from lease payments to the states.

Suthers and other attorneys general said then that the Obama administration was withholding money that never should have been subject to sequestration.


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