By Thomas Mitchell
PILT is not Western welfare, protests Rep. Mark Amodei.
PILT is a federal obligation, insists Sen. Dean Heller.
Payment in Lieu of Taxes is how Congress, since 1976, has attempted to provide relief to counties with large tracts of non-taxable federal land so they can provide police and fire protection, education and other public services.
In the final hours this past week of hammering out a $1 trillion omnibus appropriations bill to fund the federal government through September, Western congressmen discovered there was no money for PILT, which can amount to more than 10 percent of the budgets of some rural counties. For Nevada in 2013 payments totaled $23 million or 40 cents an acre.
“It was news to most of us that it wasn’t in the bill. …” explained Amodei, whose district covers northern Lyon county and all of Douglas, Carson City, Storey, Washoe, Humboldt, Pershing, Churchill, Lander, Eureka and Elko counties. “The omnibus was put together over the holiday by staff and pretty much the Cardinals (The chairmen of the House Budget Committee subcommittees are called ‘Cardinals’ because of their power over the budget.) with their counterparts on the Senate side. There were no committee mark-ups. I’ll shorten it up to say: It was not regular order.”
Heller was the only member of the Nevada delegated to vote against the omnibus bill, at least partly because it lacked PILT funding. “PILT is not a discretionary fund to be used for other purposes. It is an obligation the federal government has to any county with public lands,” he offered, promising to work to restore the funding.
Amodei explained that part of the problem is that in 2009 PILT came out of the Interior Department’s budget and went into TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program).
“That effort was led by none other than our pal Senator Harry Reid. So it funded it for five years in TARP but it wasn’t in the Interior bill anymore. So when we all started screaming formally, it was like, well, it hasn’t been in there,” Amodei recounted, noting the change to fully fund PILT with TARP money took place just prior to the 2010 election and the Nevada Association of Counties practically declared Reid man of the year.
“You can see that might have been helpful to someone running for statewide office in Nevada to go to the rurals and say, ‘I’m the guy who helped get your PILT funded,” Amodei said. Reid boasted at the time that he personally had “forced” Congress to fully fund PILT through 2012.
Amodei said Speaker John Boehner, in front of 30 Western House members, promised PILT would be funded, probably in the farm bill.
“The bottom factual line is we have the public commitment of leadership that it will done, it’s usually paid in June. They want to put it in the farm bill, so the question is: When are you planning on doing the farm bill?” he said. “I suspect we’ll take a serious look at the farm bill in February …” Amodei said. “Right now we were told in a large meeting in the speaker’s conference room (this past week), he fully supports it. It will get done. …
“Here’s the reality for us. Some people see it as Western welfare. It’s not welfare,” he said, adding that he has told another congressman that if they did not want to give the counties the money, the counties would be glad to take a like value in land. “You know the people in Pershing County will probably take the Burning Man site, I’m sure it appraises at next to nothing. Maybe the Nye County guys would like to take Yucca Mountain. The folks up north will take this mining claim and that mining claim. Keep your money we’ll just take the land back.”
Rep. Steven Horsford, whose district covers the rest of rural Nevada and part of Clark County, also pledged to restore PILT funding. “PILT is critical to rural counties in my district, and it makes up a significant portion of many budgets for traditionally underserved communities,” he said. “Work is being done on a short-term extension of the funding, which expires in June. However, Nevadans need a long-term solution.”
While PILT, which totals $400 million nationwide, did not get funded, the budget negotiators managed to find enough loose change to spend $1.39 billion on Amtrak, $612 million for the failed Head Start program and enough money to not close rural Post Offices and deliver mail on Saturday.
Amodei also cautioned that there still is no assurance PILT will be funded at 100 percent.
Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read additional musings on his blog at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.