Letters From the West

County payments left out of House Omnibus spending bill

Lin Hintze a Custer County commissioner, crusades in Washington, D.C. to change the PILT formula and ensure rural counties like his will get the needed funds. He shows how western states carry a larger burden than those in the east because of the  amount of public land here. KATHERINE JONES— kjones@idahostatesman.com

Lin Hintze a Custer County commissioner from Mackay, crusades in Washington, D.C. to change the PILT formula and ensure rural counties like his will get the needed funds. He shows how western states carry a larger burden than those in the east because of the amount of public land here. KATHERINE JONES— kjones@idahostatesman.com

Idaho’s two Congressmen are fighting for funding rural community services, but with slightly different approaches.

Most of Idaho’s rural counties are dominated with federal land, leaving little private land to form a tax base. That makes the federal government’s payments in lieu of taxes (PILT) critical to funding services like police, fire, emergencies, public health and justice.

For decades, the 1,850 counties that have 600 million acres of federal land, mostly in the West, did not see full funding of these payments as Congress made them compete with other federal spending measures.

That changed in 2008 when the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, bill, put PILT payments and the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act funds into mandatory spending for four years.

The funding was extended as part of the transportation bill last year but expired in October. The program needed to either be re-inserted into the annual appropriations committee bills or it can be funded again in mandatory spending through the authorizing committees.

The funding was included in the budget deal cut by Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray in December. But an Omnibus Appropriations bill approved in the House committee left PILT funding out, including $26 million for Idaho.

The House will vote on the bill today, and Rep. Raul Labrador isn’t happy the PILT payments weren’t included, calling them a “commitment of our government” to local governments.

“They increased spending by $45 billion but apparently they couldn’t find money to fund PILT,” Labrador said.

House leaders have assured him that the funding will be included in the Farm Bill, but Labrador said all that means is the federal government will spend more money.

“It’s once again business as usual,” he said, which will “allow the Democrats to use that as a hostage” to get more of what they want in the Farm Bill.

Republican Rep. Mike Simpson is on the Appropriations Committee and used to be chairman of the committee that controls PILT. He had included full funding for PILT. In the end it was cut, according to Politico, so that westerners could get funds for other programs they wanted, like firefighting.

These westerners were assured the funding will come, hopefully as a permanent mandatory program approved by the House Resources Committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Senators are talking about a grand deal that would make PILT mandatory and also fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Program from offshore oil royalties.

States with offshore oil also would get some of the funds. But it will take support from both committees. Labrador is on the House Resource Committee.

He said he had not heard about the Senate talks but would like to see the payments become mandatory. But he’d be happy if they added it to the Omnibus bill so it’s funded without break this year.

Simpson said in a statement that funding PILT is critical, comparing it to property taxes.

“I am deeply concerned about the lapse of funding for PILT in the Omnibus, but I am counting on authorizing committees to be true to their word when they assure me that PILT payments will go out for 2014,” he said. “I hope that this provides an opportunity to permanently shift PILT away from discretionary funding, where it is subject to the whims of the annual budget process, and back to mandatory funding.”

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West