Letters From the West

Senate sends Helium bill to Obama with rural schools funding

The BLM is one of the government agencies that actually produces more money than it spends because of the National Helium Reserve. (BLM photo)

The BLM is one of the government agencies that actually produces more money than it spends because of the National Helium Reserve. (BLM photo)

The Senate gave final passage to a bill that funds the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act for another year.

At a time when the headlines are how Congress can’t get things done and how the House is trying to restart the timber wars, this simple, typical government bill keeps one federal revenue stream running and steers it to a a waiting constituency.

The Helium Stewardship Act keeps the national Helium Reserve, managed by the Bureau of Land Management in federal hands. This Texas facility was scheduled to close Oct. 1 as a part of a privatization program required by a 1996 law.

But right now there is a worldwide shortage and no one wants the federal government to shut down its helium sales. In 2012, production from the Federal Helium Reserve was 2.1 billion cubic feet, while total domestic sales volume was 4.0 bcf.

“I am pleased that Congress has come together to avoid a worldwide helium market disruption,” said Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch. “Helium is critical to the Idaho economy as well as the national economy. It is an essential component to the work being done by high-tech manufacturers and the medical industry.”

So the House and Senate unanimously approved keeping the program to save the economy. And to ensure that rural lawmakers were on board the bill send $270 million to the Secure Rural Schools program that provides funds to selected counties who used to get money from federal timber receipts.

Right now 35 Idaho counties currently get $28 million annually for schools, roads and other projects under the Secure Rural Schools program. Because if the budget holdbacks called sequestration, its not clear how much they will get next year.

But what is clear is that their funding won’t be tied to an artificial timber quota set by Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington and passed by the House. It won’t depend on a forest trust proposal by Rep. Raul Labrador that was included in the controversial bill.

The passage of this bill, which halts temporarily, a government privatization program that Tea Party conservatives should love, provides hope that Congress will find a way to keep from shutting down the government, agree to pay its bills so we don’t default like Argentina and perhaps put the nation’s interest first.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West