The House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing Tuesday, January 14, to examine the Administration’s determination that the automatic spending cuts under the Budget Control Act – commonly known as sequestration – applied to Secure Rural Schools (SRS) funds that had already been sent out to states. The USDA Forest Service (USFS) ultimately requested repayment of nearly $18 million in SRS funds from the states.
Robert Bonnie, Undersecretary at USDA for Natural Resources and the Environment, was present to testify. Many of the committee members present, including Chairman Hastings (R-WA), Rep. Duncan (R-SC), and Rep. Labrador (R-ID), said they believed that the cuts had been a political maneuver designed to make sequestration as painful as possible. Ranking Member DeFazio (D-OR) placed the responsibility for retroactive cuts on the USFS being forced to implement “bad law”. Undersecretary Bonnie acknowledged that there was some confusion and disagreement on how sequestration would apply to funding at the time the initial payments were legally required to go out, which is what lead to the need to ask states for some of those funds to be returned.
Addressing questions related to struggling rural communities and the lack of management on National Forest System lands, Undersecretary Bonnie acknowledged that the USFS must increase the scope and scale of forest restoration. Further, he cited the ongoing cycle of fire transfers and the impact of transfers on non-fire programs as the greatest obstacle to increasing forest management. The 19 states that have not repaid the SRS funds still face the possibility of having the amounts owed taken out of any 2014 payments