It’s that time of year again, when counties in Nevada and across the West squat on the street corner with their alms cups extended anxiously awaiting the tinkling sound of a few coins from the federal till — otherwise known as Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) — and certain politicians pound their chests and boast of their generosity.
Since 1977 Congress has parsimoniously paid out pennies on the acre to local governments to make up for the land the federal government controls but on which it pays no local property taxes. Since 85 percent of Nevada land is controlled by various federal agencies that is a lot of property tax to forgo.
In a recent press release the Interior Department announced it is doling out $552.8 million in PILT payments this year. Of that, Nevada counties are slated to net almost $27 million.
“Given that 85 percent of Nevada’s lands are managed by the federal government, the PILT program makes it possible for communities in Nevada to maintain critical public services across large swaths of federal land,” said Nevada Sen. Dean Heller in a statement. “That is why I welcome the Department of the Interior’s announcement that Nevada will receive nearly $27 million in PILT payments, and increase of more than $800,000 from last year. This additional funding will help ensure that Nevada’s rural communities can continue to provide public services such as law enforcement and road maintenance. As a strong supporter of the PILT program, I thank Secretary (Ryan) Zinke for recognizing my state’s needs and reaffirming his commitment to Nevada’s rural communities.”
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto also chimed in with a nearly verbatim crowing, “I applaud the Department of Interior for awarding nearly $27 million to our rural counties through the PILT program — an increase of $800,000 from last year. These funds are vital to local governments to provide essential services and enable local leaders to invest in development projects.”
Secretary Zinke put out a statement noting his Montana roots and saying, “Rural America, especially states out west with large federal land holdings, play a big part in feeding and powering the nation and also in providing recreation opportunities, but because the lands are federal, the local governments don’t earn revenue from them. PILT investments often serve as critical support for local communities as they juggle planning and paying for basic services, such as public safety, fire-fighting, social services, and transportation.”
What they didn’t say is that this year’s PILT payments increased by 19 percent over the previous year’s handouts, but Nevada’s check only increased by 3 percent, and the payments to four counties — Elko, Esmeralda, Eureka and Lander — actually decreased.
Nor did they make note of the fact the Interior Department alone collects more than $9.6 billion in revenue annually from commercial activities on public lands, such as oil and gas leasing, livestock grazing and timber harvesting — a portion of which is shared with states and counties — meaning the PILT payments amount to only 5.7 percent of that revenue. And that doesn’t take into account revenue generated by Agriculture Department federal land holdings.
Also, Nevada got short shrift when compared to most nearby states. While Utah also saw PILT checks increase by a meager 3 percent, California’s payments went up 25 percent, Arizona’s 11 percent, Idaho’s 20 percent, New Mexico’s 11 percent and Oregon’s a whopping 88 percent.
PILT payments are based on a formula that takes into account the number of acres of federal land in each county, as well as the population. It is a formula that defies explanation.
Nevada on average is getting 48 cents per acre, having a population of 2.9 million and 85 percent of its land under federal control. But New Mexico, with a population of 2 million and only 35 percent of its land under federal control, gets $1.90 per acre. Utah, with a population nearly equal to Nevada at 3 million and 65 percent of it land in federal hands, is getting $1.24 an acre.
Every state adjacent to Nevada is getting at least twice as much per acre.
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 91 cents an acre, the average income for the four states that have public trust land was $28.59 per acre. The task force estimated Nevada could net $114 million by taking over just 10 percent of BLM land.
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.