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Fund PILT or Give Back Our Public Lands!

(The following article was written by District 3 Fremont County Commissioner Ed Norden and appeared in the County Line column in the March 8th edition of the Cañon City Daily Record)

Fremont County will get its $1 million allotment this year from the federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program but you have not heard the last about this from me.   The PILT authorization that was attached to the Farm Bill after being cut from the main budget bill is for only a single year.  We have got to find a way to make PILT funding a permanent part of the federal budget.

Like many citizens I’m sick and tired of wasteful federal spending and want to see Congress cut the deficit.   But PILT is not just another federal entitlement.   Payment in Lieu of Taxes provides local government with but a fraction of what counties could collect in property taxes and mineral royalties if the federal lands within our boundaries were turned over to the states as Congress originally promised when statehood was granted.

The simple argument I’m making is the same argument other state and local officials in the American west are making.   If the federal government can’t fulfill a pledge made in the Federal Land Management Policy of Act of 1976 and give us a token of money through the PILT program, then return those public lands to the states.

The American Lands Council notes that for decades, the federal government controlled as much as 90% of the lands in Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Florida, and other states.    The states complained that because of this, they could not fund education or grow their economies.   Those states refused to take NO for an answer.  They compelled Congress to transfer title to their lands.    Today, the federal government controls less than 5% of all land in states east of Colorado.    But the act adopted in 1976 that created the PILT program also found Congress unilaterally declaring that it was their new policy to retain these lands in federal ownership.

No doubt when the compromise budget bill was put forth in January, east coast legislators gutted PILT payments to western states.   Thus the last ditch effort to restore PILT monies via the Farm Bill.   I agree with 5th District Congressman Doug Lamborn that the Farm Bill is no way to fund PILT.   Lamborn explained at last week’s Fremont Cattlemens’ meeting that he voted against the Farm Bill because he could not in good conscience vote for something that added billions of dollars to the federal deficit for food stamps.   Lamborn said the $422 million for PILT represented only ½ of 1,000th of total Farm Bill spending.

But the perspective from his constituent counties in Fremont, Custer, Chaffee, and Park of the 5th Congressional District is considerably different.   Consider that if Fremont County lost $1 million in PILT funding this year it would have wiped out over 9 percent of our $10.87 million General Fund budget revenues for 2014.   The county budget cuts I’ve watched over my nine years as a Commissioner would have paled in comparison to what we would have had to cut this year without PILT.

To be fair I’ll share how the rest of Colorado’s House delegation voted on the Farm Bill.   Representatives Cory Gardner and Ed Perlmutter voted to approve.   3rd District Congressman Scott Tipton was absent but said he would have voted for it after helping sponsor the PILT amendment.   Representatives Dianna DeGette, Jared Polis, Mike Coffman, and Doug Lamborn voted NO.

So we have our PILT money for 2014.   It’s a one year appropriation.   Rural Colorado Counties must continue to be heard on this issue.   Colorado Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennett are co-sponsoring legislation to permanently authorize and fund the PILT program.   I urged Congressman Lamborn last week to join in supporting such permanent legislation in the House.   Between 55-60 percent of all lands in Fremont County’s borders are public lands.   PILT funding is vital in serving our citizens and providing access to the thousands of acres of federal land.   If Congress can’t honor its PILT commitments then give back our public lands!