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President's Ponderings: Congress Needs To Make PILT Payments

By Ed Luttrell, National Grange President (President's Ponderings Blog 1/28/14)

  JANUARY 29, 2014 --

The budget recently passed gives us a deficit reduction while increasing spending by 45 billion dollars. The reductions are based upon a 10 year projection while the increases are immediate. Do you remember the last time the government met a 10 year projection?

In addition, the payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) program ended with the June 2013 payment to rural counties. Now Congress says they’re going to fix the problem without increasing spending.

PILT payments are essential to many rural counties throughout America, especially in the western and southern portions of our nation. Many of our rural counties are composed of 50 to over 90 percent federal lands. The federal government does not pay taxes on these lands, but have for years compensated those counties with PILT payments.

Rural counties tend to have small and efficient government, simply because they don’t have many resources to start with. Low population and an agricultural or natural resource base tend not to generate the tax dollars that dense populations and industry do. Yet a rural county means schools, law enforcement, health care and more are often spread across a large area and that distance creates an increased cost to deliver basic services.

Many of these counties are dependent upon the small business, farms, ranches, and tourists that use these federal lands. Yet the Forest Service, BLM and other agencies ultimately control the fate of those counties by their management or restrictions of these public lands.

Congress must deal with this issue quickly or many county governments will be adversely impacted this year. I worry that Congress will once again act too late or not at all. If they act, will they create a solution or just band-aid the problem and kick it down the road until after the next election?

Our county governments have enough uncertainty without Congress adding more. Congress needs to re-implement the PILT payments this spring. Their challenge is to do so without just printing more money. Perhaps a return of a portion of the public lands to those counties and allowing them manage these lands for the benefit of the county is a solution. Ranchers and foresters might welcome local management that recognizes the uniqueness of their local area. Tourists might welcome local people who open up the parks when Washington shuts down temporarily.

No idea is perfect, but not making PILT payments does nothing but harm to our rural county governments.

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