Budget Ends Payments to 1,850 Counties

The U.S. government pays no local taxes on millions of acres of public land across the country. Congress’ new budget ends the federal payments that helped make up the difference for local overnments. 

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By now, most people have heard about the various winners and losers in the $1.1 trillion budget passed last week. But what missed the attention of most national media is screaming-mad, front-page news all across the West.

Congress did not fund payments-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILT. PILT payments for this year – which began in October – were to be $400 million divided among 1,850 counties containing federal land.

Here’s a sampling:

  • The Cortez (Colorado) Journal on January 16th leads with “Budget shortchanges Western states; no funds to compensate for tax-exempt federal lands.”
  • The Salt Lake Tribune: “Congress’ budget deal could cost Utah counties $35 million.”
  • Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune: “Senate easily passes $1.1 trillion spending bill that cuts funding to Wyoming counties.”

Example after example fills state and local media as counties try to scramble to figure out how to keep operating without these crucial funds.

A good example of the national media coverage of PILT is from Politico – and it isn’t even accurate. Politico’s mention of the PILT defunding is ho-hum without any sense of the extreme disruption it is causing for more than half the counties in the U.S. “To make room for firefighting funds in the Interior Department and Forest Service means no money is left to absorb the costs of the PILT program [payments in lieu of taxes], which helps small Western towns meet their local budgets when surrounded by federal lands.”

Yes, small Western towns, but in reality close to half the land area of the U.S. just got a funding cut. Money used for emergency services, search and rescue, roads, law enforcement, education and other essential programs have not been funded.

PILT has been funded since 1976 as a way to compensate counties and local governments for the federal public lands they contain, because those lands are exempt from paying taxes. PILT payments and non-payments affect counties across most of the U.S. but especially the West and Alaska.

“Since October counties have in good faith delivered vital county services to our citizens and visitors with the expectation that the federal government would honor its 37-year commitment to county governments who are unable to collect property taxes on more than 600 million acres of federal land,” said Matt Chase, executive director of National Association of Counties (NACo), in a press release.

Members of Congress are scrambling to get PILT funded. Some say it will be funded in the farm bill, but Daily Yonder readers are well aware of the delays with the farm bill. Senator Mark Udall (D-Colorado) introduced a bill earlier last week to permanently fund the program, and it was cosponsored in the House Thursday by Dean Heller (R-Nevada). Time will tell if a free-standing PILT bill will pass. The good news is that federal lands counties are both red and blue, and if there was ever a non-partisan spending need, PILT is it.

This chart from the Salt Lake City Tribune lists amounts that some Utah counties will lose in PILT.

A large amount of the federal lands affected by the PILT are part of the enduring frontier. The National Center for Frontier Communities (NCFC) is the only national organization dedicated to the issues and concerns of the most remote and sparsely populated areas of the United States and home to most of the federal lands. Throughout its 16 year history, the NCFC has advocated for Congress to fully fund the PILT.

“The PILT is an obligation by the government and the citizens of this country to honor the heritage and national economic value of our frontier public lands,” said Caroline Ford, president of NCFC. “Congress has failed to recognize how the economy operates in and around the public lands, one of the nation’s most valuable assets.”

Charlie Alfero Executive Director of the frontier center has said the failure to fund PILT harms the entire nation. “It seems we are hell bent on undermining the well being of our most remote residents,” he said. “By eliminating the PILT we further remove too many Americans from the opportunity to succeed. If we abandon our frontier, we lose much of the identity that makes us Americans.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The National Center for Frontier Communities will provide information on PILT via its Facebook page and is conducting a national campaign to encourage people to contact their members of Congress about the funding loss.

Carol Miller has lived in a frontier mountain village in northern New Mexico since 1976 and is an honorary board member of the National Center for Frontier Communities.

 

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