Steamboat Springs U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, held a committee hearing this week to promote passage of legislation to fully fund the federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, which could mean more money for several Northwest Colorado counties, including Routt.
McInnis is chairman of the Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health. On Thursday he convened a joint Forests, National Parks and Fisheries Subcommittee hearing to promote passage of House Resolution 1811, which he authored. The bill would fully fund PILT and the Refuge Revenue Sharing program. Both programs are designed to reimburse local counties for lost property taxes on tax-exempt federal lands.
PILT payments are made annually for tax-exempt federal lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and for federal water projects and some military installations. The Refuge Revenue Sharing program provides reimbursements to localities for federally recognized Wildlife Refuges, which are also tax-exempt.
Since PILT's inception in 1976, the value of federal payments to local governments under the program have rarely been fully funded. In 1994, Congress attempted to address this concern by increasing the program's authorization levels. However, Congress' appropriations to PILT have failed to meet those authorization levels in the years since, a situation that McInnis' bill sets out to change.
"Congress made a promise to provide just and reasonable compensation to the local governments whose tax base is eroded by a large federal land ownership presence," McInnis said at the hearing. "Unfortunately, Congress has rarely been willing to fund PILT and the Refuge Revenue Fund at the levels authorized under these formulas. You couldn't say that Congress totally broke its promise, but there's no question we've been fudging big time."
This year, McInnis said, Congress shortchanged PILT by about $140 million and the Refuge Revenue Sharing fund by more than $16 million.
Nearly all of the 36 counties in McInnis' Third Congressional District rely on PILT or the Refuge Revenue program to fund local services. Routt County received $489,000 in PILT funds in 2001 and $547,000 in 2000, county Finance Director Dan Strnad said. That's about $700,000 less than what the county would have received if PILT were fully funded.
Rio Blanco County Commissioner Don Davis testified at Thursday's hearing.
He said full PILT payments are crucial considering "counties are the general purpose local government that must provide the local public services both for the federal employees and their families and for the users of federal lands."
McInnis' office said Thursday's hearing was important because it provided momentum for the legislation. But Routt County officials aren't ready to start budgeting for full PILT funding.
"We're not going to get too excited about it," Strnad said. "I think since the PILT program came out in 1976, they've tried to do something like this every year. But so far, they haven't been able to."