Editorial: Forget PILT checks, transfer federal lands

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.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Summerlin was built on former BLM land.

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7 comments on “Editorial: Forget PILT checks, transfer federal lands

  1. deleted says:

    The logic escapes me Thomas and correct me where I’m wrong here but you main suggestion is that “we the people” who currently own the land, give it away, to a state, in this case Nevada, so that that entity may then sell it to a private party who sees the exchange as beneficial to them.

    Is this how you would conduct your personal affairs if you owned a piece of property; give it away so that someone else, that you don’t even know, can then sell it to someone so that they can both profit while you lose everything?

    I though conservatives were in favor of the government conducting their affairs like a business? This doesn’t sound like the way any business that succeeds conducts their affairs.

  2. If you are losing money on something, sell it.

    Besides, the Feds were given clear title to the land so it could be sold without legal challenge or handed over to the states. Communal ownership in perpetuity was not the original intent.

  3. deleted says:

    And now that I’ve read some of the report from the “Task Force” I have to comment on even the figures you used to justify transferring the land.

    The report doesn’t say that Nevada can expect to make $28 per acre if the land was put into the public trust. It says that the range the four states made was between $7.80 and $28.50.

    Also, the anticipated cost (and let’s remember that the Task Force ain’t nothing but the creation of a legislature that WANTED justification for getting the Feds to transfer the land so their numbers ought to be looked at very skeptically, even if they weren’t a gov’ment entity that can’t be trusted to know how to add and subtract anyhow). In just the first year, the costs were expected to be more than $3.50 per acre.

    So, using the suspect task forces numbers, if it’s costing Nevada $3.50 per to get the first 7 million acres, and they receive the low end estimate $7.80, for the land they are going to immediately try to sell, you’re talking about a $4 “benefit” to Nevada, and don’t forget these are the numbers “calculated” by a task force set up to make these numbers as appealing as possible.

    Also take into consideration that just to transfer the land, the state is telling the federal government that they’re going to have to do lots of stuff including the environmental assessments and tests, and surveying, etc. All so that “we the people” can give our land away.

    If the argument is that this land is too expensive for the Feds to hold then there are better solutions; raise the grazing fees for one, and raise the royalties for digging our gold, and cutting our timber for another. If the argument is that the government just shouldn’t have the land then trying to justify that philosophy using the costs to the government of keeping that land is unnecessary and detracts from what might be a principled position. Even though I disagree with it, I can’t say that clouding it up with somewhat suspect figures does it justice.

  4. Steve says:

    The very existence of PILT acknowledges the federal government does not have right to those lands and must pay something to the states in return for claiming control of them.

  5. deleted says:

    And I had problems trying to follow the links you provided for the Task Force’s report, and in case anyone cares, here it is:

    http://nvnaco.org/images/final%20nv%20land%20mgmnt%20task%20force%20report%20%28print%20version%29.pdf

  6. deleted says:

    Apparently no one cared.

    But I’ll add one more comment anyway here and that is that additional costs, to the state, would be incurred, including fire prevention and fire fighting costs. Coupled with all those I pointed out above, along with the reduction in PILT payments to be expected, even the already scarce “benefits” that this state could expect if “we the people” just gave Nevada our land, near vanish.

    I’ve also read some comments from the public comment section of the report and I have to say that even rural places where presentations were made, seem to be, in large measure AGAINST this proposal in part due to the numbers of relatively well paid federal employes that would suddenly be taken from Nevada if the land was given away by the Feds, but even more surprisingly a large number of comments from people in those rural places (Battle Mountain among others) where the people objected because it was their opinion that the state would not protect them from environmental consequences, and other concerns but that the federal government does.

    Not a surprise that this is going nowhere.

  7. […] happened and the results of a years-long public lands task force report was written in smoke. That task force found that, while the federal government loses 91 cents an acre on the land it manages, states with […]

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