More than 40 business, elected, and community leaders from across the state made the annual Oregon Business Plan trip to Washington, D.C., March 14-16 to pursue the Business Plan’s federal policy agenda with members of Congress and administration officials.
Four main topics headed a robust agenda: international trade, infrastructure, housing and homelessness, and improving the management of Oregon’s federal forests. Trip participants met with each member of Oregon’s Congressional delegation as well as Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID), chair of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development Appropriations. Additionally, the Business Plan group met with representatives from the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The timing of the trip was opportune as members of Congress were working on the omnibus spending bill, which has since been signed into law by the President. One of the key items on the Business Plan agenda was finding a fix to the way that the U.S. currently pays for wildfires. Unlike the way the federal government pays for other natural disasters, through emergency management funds, the Forest Service pays for fighting catastrophic wildfires by robbing funds from other parts of its budget that are supposed to be used for restoration, thinning, and other management measures that would prevent wildfires.
According to the president’s 2019 budget proposal, wildfire suppression spending reached a record $2.4 billion in 2017, necessitating a $527 million transfer from fire prevention and forest restoration efforts. This ill-advised practice has disastrous consequences for the health of our forests and communities that depend on them. As the picture above shows, firefighting consumed 16% of the Forest Service budget in 1995. In 2015 that share hit 56%, and until the recently passed legislation, it was expected to reach 67% by 2021.
The provisions included in the omnibus bill would establish a fund of more than $2 billion a year to pay for wildfire suppression, preventing the need to raid other forest service budgets. The fund could be tapped when the cost of wildfires exceeds the 10-year average cost of wildfires, which would be set at the 2015 level. This was truly a bipartisan effort. Members of Oregon’s congressional delegation were pivotal in making this happen and they all deserve our thanks.
Other key Oregon priorities were included in the omnibus bill, including two more years of Secure Rural Schools payments to timber counties (although at a reduced level), and a short-term increase in a key tax credit program for funding affordable housing.
Read the full Oregon Business Plan federal policy agenda here.