Panel wants info on money kept from rural schools

House committee issues subpoenas for documents related to sequester

The U.S. House Natural Resources Committee issued subpoenas Wednesday demanding that the Obama administration turn over documents related to withholding federal money from rural schools.

The committee issued subpoenas to the Office of Management and Budget and the Agriculture Department as part of its oversight function.

The committee is looking into the Obama administration’s decision to withhold funds from rural communities retroactively, citing the sequester, a 5.1 percent across-the-board cut in 2013 spending.

The administration on March 19 requested that states repay the federal government $17.9 million that had been distributed the previous year under the Secure Rural Schools program.

The program, which President Barack Obama extended through 2012, is intended to replace money that otherwise would have come from the state shares of timber sales on nearby federal forest lands.

States have waged a similar battle with the administration over the sequestration of money from the leasing of federal lands for mineral development. The Department of the Interior last month said it would release $109 million back to the states, including $5.7 million to Colorado. The department, however, also will continue to withhold a portion of the states’ shares into the future.

Many rural communities use the Secure Rural Schools money to fund education, public safety and infrastructure repairs, said U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., a member of the Resources Committee whose congressional district includes most of the West Slope.

“For these communities, these payments make all the difference in their ability to provide essential services, By retroactively cutting SRS funds that were already paid to the states, the administration acted to make sequestration as painful as possible and has jeopardized the well-being of rural communities,” Tipton said.

The administration has refused to provide information on its decision or an explanation of the legal authority for its actions, Tipton said, noting that he hoped the subpoenas would lead to the federal government passing along the withheld funds.

The Agriculture Department and OMB have yet to respond to the requests for documents made three months ago, committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said.

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