Colorado’s mountains, rivers and open spaces form the very foundation of our way of life in the Centennial State. I know I am not alone in treasuring the experience of rafting the Yampa River and summiting Mount Zirkel in the Routt National Forest.
These uniquely Colorado experiences show why “Colorado” is more than just a place — it’s a way of life that I have been proud to promote and protect. Yet the very public lands that draw thousands from across the world also pose a problem for localities because those public lands do not directly contribute to our communities’ local tax bases and therefore do not support road maintenance, public safety and other essential public services that we count on.
That’s why I have fought to preserve the payment in lieu of taxes program. It helps local governments make up for this gap and ensure residents and businesses are not penalized for being home to some of the most spectacular mountain peaks, river valleys and open spaces in the nation.
Northwest Colorado communities, in particular, count on PILT funds to support vital services. In 2013 alone:
■ Routt County received more than $1.47 million for the more than 661,000 acres of federal land within its boundaries;
■ Moffat County received more than $554,000 for the nearly 1.7 million acres of federal land within its boundaries;
■ Rio Blanco County received more than $497,000 for the nearly 1.5 million acres of federal land within its boundaries; and,
■ Jackson County received more than $170,000 in funding for the more than 513,000 acres of federal land within its boundaries.
The full $32 million that Colorado counties received under the PILT program last year may sound like small change in Washington, D.C., but our local communities know just how important this support is to keeping teachers in schools and plows on the roads. In most counties across Colorado, these payments constitute significant portions of their budgets.
Despite this, Congress last year threatened to pull out the rug from under Colorado communities and end its support for the PILT program. Thanks to the voices of county leaders throughout Colorado who stood with me in support of the PILT program, I was able to successfully include a one-year extension of the PILT program in the bipartisan and deficit-reducing farm bill.
Although this was a significant win for Coloradans across the Centennial State, we cannot rest on our laurels until next year. More importantly, we cannot leave our rural counties at the mercy of the annual congressional budget process, which could leave them high and dry.
Colorado counties need a long-term solution to protect them from the perennial uncertainty of whether congressional gridlock will force them to cut essential services such as education, road repair and public safety. We must do better, which is why I am proud to lead the bipartisan effort to permanently reauthorize and fund the PILT program.
After years of work to bridge the partisan divide, I am glad to say that support for the PILT program no longer is limited to lawmakers from rural and Western states. There is a growing bipartisan consensus that Congress needs to step up to the plate and fulfill our end of the bargain so our local partners can support the police, firefighters, schools, and other essential public services Coloradans and Americans across the West count on.
The time for Congress to act is now, and I will keep fighting with Coloradans by my side to ensure rural communities and our high quality of life are not the victims of Washington-style gridlock and partisanship.
Udall, Colorado’s senior U.S. senator, is chairman of the U.S. Senate National Parks Subcommittee and a senior member of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.