Colorado lawmakers try to rescue funds paid to counties for federal land

Federal representatives on both sides of the aisle are looking to the farm bill to restore money for rural counties with untaxable federal land.

A conference committee is now considering the House and Senate versions of the farm bill and the House leadership is leaning toward finding a way to include payment-in-lieu-of-taxes funding into the measure, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., said Wednesday.

Money for the program, which goes to counties in every state except Rhode Island, wasn’t included in budget legislation, which sent local officials scurrying.

“All 29 counties are impacted, without exception,” Tipton said of the rural counties that make up his 3rd Congressional District. “Every county commissioner has expressed frustration” with the loss of funding.

U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, both Colorado Democrats, signed a joint letter with Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, both Republicans, calling on the farm-bill conference committee to include the payments in the bill, which would have to pass both houses before being signed by the president.

“Without an extension of PILT, rural counties will face drastic budget cuts in June and may struggle to fund the most basic of services,” the bipartisan letter to the conference committee said.

Mesa County, which is 72 percent federal land, last year received $3.1 million, or about 5 percent of the county’s $56 million general fund. Statewide, Colorado counties received $32 million in PILT payments last year.

Western representatives complained when they learned the program had been zeroed out that “the Western U.S. is being discarded, effectively,” Tipton said.

The House leadership “assured us there would be funding for PILT,” Tipton said.

“It’s relatively recently that counties have become reliant on PILT,” Mesa County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca said, “but reliant we have become.”

Money from the program is earmarked for services related to the presence of large amounts of federal land, such as law enforcement, search and rescue and road maintenance, Acquafresca said.

County officials will work with Colorado Counties Inc. to urge Congress to fund the program.

Udall, meanwhile, has introduced legislation to permanently authorize the program.

The bill would ensure that counties “can reliably support their police departments, firefighters, schools and other services that help maintain public safety and our quality of life” with the money, Udall said in a statement.

Another option, Tipton said, would be to turn the lands back to the states, but “I’m very confident they’re not going to do that.”


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