WASHINGTON — Top Obama administration officials refused to appear before a House panel Tuesday to explain why they retroactively seized federal money from communities including Colorado that are part of the Secure Rural Schools program that lawmakers say has severely impacted local economies.
Officials from the White House Office of Management and Budget as well as top Forestry and Agriculture officials have ignored subpoenas from the House Natural Resources Committee, which is investigating why the administration distributed more than $300 million to 41 states in January 2013, then demanded states repay nearly $18 million just two months later as part of future sequestration cuts.
“The Obama administration appeared intent on making the sequester as painful and visible as possible, and this was another example,” said Rep. Doc Hastings, Washington Republican and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
“Instead of working with Congress to make responsible cuts and reforms, the administration took the political opportunity to go after funds used to pay teacher and police salaries,” Hastings said.
Instead, the administration dispatched Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie to face the panel and answer tough questioning from both sides of the political aisle.
In one testy exchange, Bonnie sparked the ire of Republican Rep. Scott Tipton when he contradicted the lawmaker and suggested Colorado teachers and students were not adversely affected by the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) cuts of 73 percent to the state.
“County officials have let me know that they will be cancelling important transportation, emergency service and fire prevention projects, as well as having to lay off teachers and other employees due to SRS title funds being further reduced,” Tipton said.
“Let me be clear, if left unchecked, the actions of this administration will directly and adversely impact students and teachers in economically disadvantaged rural areas in my district. I am outraged that the administration decided to take this action, has not been more transparent in this process, has failed to comply with subpoenas, and has not fully answered important questions posed by me and other members of this Committee,” Tipton said.
Bonnie maintained that since Colorado has already paid back the money demanded by the federal government, “there was no impact on teachers, schools or otherwise.”
“It’s kind of you to tell us out of Washington that our schools aren’t being impacted,” Tipton fired back.
“I can tell you they are being impacted. We’ve got an abundance of public lands, we just found out PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) is not going to be funded in the omnibus that’s coming through, you’re slapping us again with funding for rural schools that are coming through, it is impacting teachers, it is impacting students,” Tipton said.
Bonnie conceded, “that may be the case,” and that his own point was “a narrow one” — that since Colorado has paid back the money, it won’t be impacted in the future.
Numerous states are objecting to the retroactive cuts and have refused to pay back the money. Bonnie revealed to the panel that one option under consideration by the Obama administration is to subtract the funds out of future appropriations to states that have not repaid the funds.
The Secure Rural Schools program was created after the spotted owl controversy to make up for funds from revenue sharing programs lost to communities when logging on public lands was drastically scaled back to protect the owl’s habitat.
After the hearing, Tipton released a slew of comments from Colorado officials on the impacts the cuts are having on the state, including forests, roads and bridges, schools, and higher unemployment.