For every year since 1976, states with public lands have been receiving funds from the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program in exchange for the tax
For every year since 1976, states with public lands have been receiving funds from the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program in exchange for the tax revenues those states would have received if they controlled those lands. (Park Record file photo)

Western counties such as Summit County are close to breathing a sigh of relief as $425 million in funding for the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program was included in the 2014 Farm Bill, which was passed Wednesday by the U.S. House of Representatives. It will move to the U.S. Senate next.

PILT funds are given yearly by the federal government to counties with public lands in an effort to offset the loss of a potential tax base that such public lands create. The funds have been given to counties every year since 1976 until they were not included in a $1.1 trillion spending plan earlier this month.

Since the majority of counties with public lands are in the West, PILT funds go mostly to Western states and represent a necessary part of many counties' budgets to conduct law enforcement, fire protection and road maintenance on public lands.

In 2013, Utah received $35.4 million in PILT funding out of the national total of $401 million, second only behind California. Summit County alone collected $1,279,584 for its 531,339 acres of public land. County Manager Bob Jasper said that, out of a $55 million budget, losing PILT funding would be a big hit.

At Wednesday's County Council meeting, a resolution calling on Congress to fully fund the PILT program was unanimously approved. However, around the same time, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the 2014 Farm Bill by a vote of 251-166, according to the Associated Press. President Obama has said he would sign the bill if it is passed by the Senate.

Many Western politicians, however, believe that PILT funding is a pittance compared to what tax revenues the states could receive should control of federal lands be turned over to the states.

Utah 47th District Rep. Ken Ivory (R-West Jordan) is sponsoring legislation, yet to be introduced, characterizing the "sovereign character" of PILT. He said PILT is supposed to be a mandatory payment by the federal government.

"Around 1780, the states gave Western lands to Congress but only to fund the Revolutionary War and to make new states," Ivory said, adding that Utah was not yet a state at this point. "They enacted a solemn compact that said from that time until our statehood, there's a solemn obligation in our statehood agreement that [the federal government] is going to dispose of this land and then [the states] can tax it."

In 1976, Ivory said, Congress decided to keep those federal lands but promised a substitute payment in place of the states' ownership of those lands, which is how the PILT program began. It was to be perpetual and mandatory funding, he added.

"Now, [PILT] is on annual life support," Ivory said. "A legislative/fiscal analyst found that PILT is only worth 13 cents on the dollar."

Ivory said PILT was being held hostage by others in Washington, D.C., as a bargaining chip to ensure that the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) remained funded. Many representatives in Western states were not going to support SNAP, he said.

According to the National Association of Counties, SNAP was proposed to be cut by $8 billion over 10 years in the 2014 Farm Bill. The Senate bill had proposed a $4.5 billion cut, while the House bill proposed a $40 billion cut, both over 10 years.

Ivory believes it is unfair that the federal government has honored the statehood promises of Eastern but not Western states. He is in support of bills in the Utah State Legislature that would set the stage for the state's control of public lands should control of them be handed over by the federal government.

"Until we make Congress honor the same statehood promise to Utah that they did to all the states east of the Colorado [River], we're going to keep being held hostage," Ivory said. "The only situation [suitable] enough is to take care of our own lands."