BY NATHAN BROWN
Idaho’s two Republican senators joined a bipartisan group of 31 mostly western senators Wednesday in urging Senate leadership to renew some crucial payments to rural western counties.
U.S. Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo signed onto a letter to Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, urging them to include at least a two-year renewal or the Payments in Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act programs in any year-end legislation. The programs make payments to counties that contain a lot of untaxable federal land and help support schools, roads and other essential government functions in counties that are largely federally owned.
“Congress has an obligation to ensure counties with large swaths of federally-owned, tax-exempt forests and rangelands can adequately provide essential services for their residents,” the letter says. “As history has proved, without the certainty of these two critical programs, schools, libraries, and jails will close. The services counties continue to provide will see a reduction in staffing and resources. Roads will go unpaved and become unsafe. Mental health and physical health services will be scaled back and in some cases even ended. Fewer and fewer law enforcement officers will be forced to patrol larger and larger areas.”
Risch, Crapo, and Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., introduced legislation in September to reauthorize PILT for 10 years. Wyden, Crapo, Risch and Merkley also are sponsoring a bill to create an endowment fund to make the Secure Rural Schools program permanent. That bill was introduced in December and hasn’t seen any action since then.
U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, whose district includes eastern Idaho, introduced a bill in the House last month to make PILT permanent, removing the need for periodic renewals. He is also co-sponsoring another that was introduced in May to extend Secure Rural Schools payments through 2020.
“PILT and SRS are critical to Idaho counties,” Simpson said in September. “This is essentially the federal government’s property tax for counties where there is large amounts of federal land. If you don’t have the ability to collect local property taxes, these programs are necessary to provide funding for schools, roads, and other local services — especially in small rural counties.”
Bonneville County got $1.4 million in PILT payments in the 2019 fiscal year, the seventh-most of any county in Idaho. Other major local recipients include Fremont County, which got $1.2 million, and Lemhi County, which got $1 million. Payments are based on federal land acreage. Idaho counties got $32.3 million total in PILT payments in 2019.
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