Ownership of land would be better than paltry PILT payouts

It is that time of year again, when counties in Nevada and across the West squat on the street corner with their tin alms cups extended anxiously awaiting the tinkling sound of a few coins from the federal till — otherwise known as Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT).

Since 1977 Congress has parsimoniously paid out pennies on the acre to local governments to make up for the land the federal government controls but on which it pays no local property taxes. Since 85 percent of Nevada land is controlled by various federal agencies that is a lot of property tax to forgo.

Just a few weeks ago the Trump administration budget for this year proposed limiting PILT funding to an average of the most recent 10 years or about $397 million, but this past week in Pahrump Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke announced at a meeting with various Nevada officials that the PILT largesse this year will be $464.6 million, a 6 percent increase over the previous year. The about-face was roundly ignored.

But for some reason, also neither explained nor questioned, Nevada’s share of the booty increased by only 2 percent to $26.18 million, about the same as inflation.

There was much backslapping all around.

Secretary Zinke noted in a self-congratulatory press release that he grew up in northwest Montana, and, “I know how important PILT payments are to local communities that have federal lands. These investments are one of the ways the federal government is fulfilling its role of being a good land manager and good neighbor to local communities. Rural America, especially states out west with large federal land holdings, play a big part in feeding and powering the nation and also in providing recreation opportunities, but because the lands are federal, the local governments don’t earn revenue from them. PILT investments often serve as critical support for local communities as they juggle planning and paying for basic services, such as public safety, fire-fighting, social services and transportation.”

Nevada Republican senior Sen. Dean Heller chimed in by saying, “Unlike other states, approximately 85 percent of Nevada lands are managed by the federal government, making the PILT program critical for local governments’ ability to maintain essential services like public safety and education.”

The state’s Democrat junior Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto did note the previous threats to trim PILT, saying, “From fixing roads to education to basic healthcare services, Nevadans have benefited from these resources for decades, despite constant threats of massive cuts to the program. I am pleased that Nevada will receive its largest grant in the program to date, which signals the Department of Interior’s recognition of PILT’s importance to Nevada and the need to boost our state’s rural communities.”

Nye County Commissioner Dan Schinhofen was quoted as saying, “With 98 percent of the land in Nye County being federally managed or owned, PILT is not seen as discretionary to us, and as such needs to be guaranteed.”

PILT payments are based on a formula that takes into account the number of acres of federal land in each county, as well as the population. It is a formula that defies explanation.

Nevada on average is getting 46 cents per acre, having a population of 2.9 million and 85 percent of its land under federal control. But New Mexico, with a population of 2 million and only 35 percent of its land under federal control, gets $1.72 per acre. Utah, with a population nearly equal to Nevada at 3 million and 65 percent of it land in federal hands, is getting 99 cents an acre.

Every state adjacent to Nevada is getting at least twice as much per acre.

The PILT payments also vary wildly by county, from a low of 7 cents an acre for Esmeralda County to a high of $2.71 per acre for Storey County. Other examples: Clark, 73 cents; Elko 46 cents; Eureka, 17 cents; Lincoln,14 cents; Mineral, 37 cents; White Pine, 24 cents. Dollars and acreage for all 1,900 counties getting PILT are available at: https://www.nbc.gov/pilt/counties.cfm.

Additionally, it should be noted that the PILT payouts amount to only 5 percent of the $8.8 billion the Interior Department collects each year from commercial activities, such as oil and gas leases, livestock grazing and timber harvesting.

Instead of sitting around with tin cups waiting for pitiful PILT handouts, Nevada should demand more control of its land and collect all of those revenues to reduce our tax burden.

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at thomasmnv@yahoo.com. He also blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.

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