Letters From the West

Western congressmen call for permanent payments to counties

0805 out magruder blueAs Americans are rushing to complete their tax forms before the deadline Tuesday, county officials across Idaho and the nation are waiting to see ho much money they will get from the federal government as payment in lieu of taxes.

These annual payments are supposed to make up for the loss of local taxes on the public lands owned by the federal government. In many rural counties in Idaho these funds are crucial to funding roads, law enforcement and other services.

These payments, which were started in the 70s, average 66 cents an acre nationally going to 2000 counties in 49 states. The counties will hear how much later this month and get paid in July.

“This figure pales in comparison to the amount of revenues that would be generated for states and local governments if economic development and value-based taxation was allowed to occur on these lands,” said Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson. “ The federal government has an obligation to reimburse local governments for large quantities of federal lands found within their jurisdiction.”

Many years the program wasn’t fully funded. But it has been since 2008 when a four-year extension was included in the Troubled Asset Relief Program. It was extended for another year in the Farm Bill approved by Congress in January.

Now 51 western congressmen from both parties, including Simpson, have sent a letter to House leaders calling for permanent full funding for what amounts to the federal government paying its taxes to local governments. Among those signing are debt hawks like Republican Reps. Cynthia Lummis, Rob Bishop of Utah and Louie Gohmert of Texas.

Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador did not sign the letter.

Idaho got $26 million in 2013 with Ada County getting $716,024, Boise County, 293,947, Elmore County $2.1 million and Owyhee County $1.2 million.

Since Congress doesn’t like to just approve permanently payments without a funding source, the trick will be finding a way to pay the federal local tax bill. It could cut other programs, raise taxes or perhaps find new revenue sources, such as growing revenues from energy development on public lands.

But that will need a political trade to conservation interests such as perhaps providing permanent full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which pays for all kinds of conservation and recreation programs. None of these deals are ever easy but having such strong support from some of the most conservative westerners helps.

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.

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