Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Western congressmen want PILT to the hilt

Simpson joins lawmakers seeking funds for rural counties

Express Staff Writer

Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson has joined his Western House colleagues in an effort to fund the federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program.

PILT was created in 1976 to pay counties that have large amounts of federal land to help offset their small property-tax bases.

Members of Congress, including Simpson, sent a letter to Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Norm Dicks, D-Wash., and Ranking Member Todd Tiahrt, R-Kans., on Thursday, March 13, objecting to the Bush administration's proposed budget, which would cut the program by $34 million from fiscal year 2008, when Congress allocated $228 million.

PILT is often placed on the federal budget chopping block. The funding formula favors counties with higher populations and has only been funded at about two-thirds the level allowed by law. In the past five years, Congress failed to pay Custer County more than $1 million. In 2004 the Congressional PILT payment to Custer County was $391,379, compared with the $990,619 that went to well-to-do Blaine County.

Custer County, located in central Idaho's Salmon River country, has about 4,300 residents and covers an area of nearly 3 million acres. Most of the land, 96 percent, is owned by the federal government, and that is precisely why Simpson has proposed in his Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act to turn some federal land over to private development.

Many environmentalists abhor the idea, but more private land would give Custer County an ongoing, more consistent revenue stream in the form of additional property taxes.

Nearly one out of three acres in the United States is owned by the federal government. Almost 90 percent of all federal acres are located in the West. A press release from Simpson states that fully funding PILT is essential to rural communities.

"PILT is not just a 'handout' for public lands communities; it is the federal government fulfilling its obligation to the communities that host the public lands," the letter from the elected officials states. "Because the federal land ownership robs local communities of property tax revenues and revenues associated with private business development, the PILT program was created to help offset a portion of the lost income for local counties. Without these funds, many rural communities would be unable to provide even the most fundamental services to both their residents and the users of the federal lands."

The letter concluded by thanking the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee for past support on the issue and recognized budget constraints facing the nation. However, members requested that the Department of Interior's budget be moved toward fully funding PILT.

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