U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis convened a joint meeting last week of the House Forests, National Parks and Fisheries subcommittees to try to get Congress to do something it has never done fully fund the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program.
The PILT program is designed to reimburse counties for property taxes lost to tax-exempt federal lands. In McInnis' district, there are 36 counties that receive PILT payments, including Routt.
McInnis' staff said last week's committee meeting was important because it gives his legislation momentum. "This bill is definitely headed somewhere," Blair Jones, a spokesman for McInnis' office, said after the meeting.
But Routt County officials are smart enough to know not to start planning how they will spend the extra money the county will receive if McInnis' legislation is approved. Since PILT payments were implemented in 1976, Congress has never appropriated enough money to cover the program's cost.
While local officials appreciate McInnis' efforts, history says he has a tough task ahead of him. "We're not going to get too excited about it," Routt County Finance Director Dan Strnad said of McInnis' bill. "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."
PILT payments are made to some 1,900 counties for federal lands administered by the BLM, 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.
PILT checks will come up $140 million short this year, McInnis' office estimates. Routt County has received some $1.36 million in PILT payments the past two years. But that's only about 60 percent of the more than $2 million the county should have received according to the complicated PILT formula.
Neighboring Moffat County's PILT check was short about $200,000 last year. Moffat County Commissioner T. Wright Dickinson said the federal government essentially "isn't paying its fair share of taxes to local government."
McInnis sees it as the federal government failing to fulfill a promise it made more than 25 years ago. "The admission that Congress made was that it would be fundamentally unfair for the federal government to own vast tracks of land within a county or municipality land that would otherwise provide local revenue in the form of property tax to fund roads, schools and other important social services and not reimburse the county for those revenue losses," McInnis said.
McInnis is right Congress should fully fund PILT according to the formula it developed for such payments. But we're not optimistic that will happen.
If it can't fully fund PILT, Congress at least should amend the formula to reflect the level of funding. At least then counties could budget for PILT payments without having to guess how much the federal government will shortchange them.