Forget PILT checks, transfer federal lands

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There is considerable consternation in rural counties across the West over the Trump administration planning to cut the size of Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) checks this year. The current budget blueprint calls for cuts but doesn’t specify how much.

Because the federal government does not pay property taxes, since 1977 Congress has seen fit to dole out to counties — calculated based on population and number of acres of federal public land — PILT checks to help pay for everything from schools, to police, fire, social services, etc. Since 85 percent of Nevada is owned by various federal land agencies, that is a lot of property tax to forgo.

Most of Nevada’s congressional delegation signed letters to the House and Senate appropriations committees urging continued PILT funding at the current level. The Senate version said, “PILT provides critical resources to nearly 1,900 counties across 49 states to offset lost property tax revenue due to the presence of tax-exempt federal lands within their jurisdictions. It supports the many critical services that counties provide on federal public lands. Without full funding for the PILT program in fiscal year (FY) 2018, counties across the nation will be unable to provide essential services such as law enforcement, education, search and rescue, road maintenance and public health to their residents and millions of federal land visitors.”

But those PILT payments are downright parsimonious when you consider the federal government this past year netted $11 billion in revenue from public lands through permits and royalties for everything from grazing to mining to oil and natural gas, but paid only $450 million in PILT money — about $25 million of that was divided among Nevada counties at the average rate of 45 cents an acre.

Far be it from us to suggest the federal government just write bigger checks when there is a far more efficient and cost-effective way of supporting the states and counties in the West. You see, despite the fact the federal public lands generate considerable revenue, the feds still manage to lose 91 cents per acre it controls.

Instead of writing checks, the frugal Trump administration could turn over a few million acres to the states and local governments — saving 91 cents an acre up front — so the locals can collect the revenue and even sell some land so private property owners can actually pay property taxes.

A report from the legislatively created Nevada Public Land Management Task Force noted a couple of years ago that, while the Bureau of Land Management loses that 91 cents an acre, the average income for the four states that have public trust land is $28.59 per acre. The task force estimated Nevada could net $114 million by taking over just 10 percent of BLM land.

For several years Rep. Mark Amodei has been pushing a bill that calls for transferring federal land to the state in phases. The initial phase would authorize the state to select no less than 7.2 million acres of public land for conveyance to Nevada.

As for the president’s plan to cut PILT funding, Amodei noted, “In the coming weeks, the House Appropriations Committee will examine the president’s budget. We will determine if the budget proposal provides an appropriate level of funding for the critical programs and agencies Americans rely on. It’s quite common for the suggested proposals included in the president’s budget to change throughout the appropriations process, and I fully expect that to be the case for the current budget submission.”

Transferring federal land to local control is a much better solution than federal handouts subject to the whims of the current administration and Congress. — TM

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