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U.S. National Debt:

Advancing County Payments

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

Extending Secure Rural Schools and Self Determination Act (SRS) payments and fully funding Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) is not a simple undertaking, especially considering the federal government's overspending problem.  However, when the federal government took over millions of acres of lands across our nation, it also took on the responsibility for the impact of federal ownership on local communities.  The federal government can, and must, meet its responsibility within its budget.

A provision that would set the stage for renewal of the SRS program and fully fund PILT was included as a part of the Senate budget framework that cleared the U.S. Senate and is being considered in a joint Senate-House conference committee, on which I am serving.  As a member of the Senate Budget Committee, I supported the inclusion of amendments to the budget resolution that remove procedural hurdles within the budget framework to facilitate SRS renewal and fully fund PILT, while making explicit the need to increase timber harvest to render such payments unnecessary in the future.  Additionally, with my support, the Senate passed H.R. 2 that includes the restoration of critical payments for rural counties, and work continues to ensure that the assistance is restored without adding to our mounting national debt.

Property taxes fund county governments, allowing them to provide basic public safety services and infrastructure maintenance for local communities.  However, lands managed by the federal government cannot be taxed by local or state governments.  To help offset losses to local governments from the presence of non-taxable lands, laws have been enacted that provide payments to offset the impact of the presence of non-taxable lands.  PILT payments are received for lands managed by the U.S. Department of Interior.  The U.S. Forest Service compensates counties through SRS payments.

The PILT program, established in 1976, provides crucial resources to nearly 1,900 counties in 49 states and 3 U.S. territories.  A fully-funded PILT program helps to ensure that counties housing federally-managed lands can continue to provide these essential services.  Like PILT, rural counties rely heavily on the SRS program, an outgrowth of the 110-year-old requirement for the U.S. Forest Service to return a portion of its receipts to the states for use in counties where national forests are located, to provide essential services to residents.  These payments reach over 775 rural counties and 4,400 schools located near national forests throughout the country and support public schools, roads, forest health projects and other county projects.

Congress has acted a number of times to extend SRS and fully fund PILT, but these extensions have been short-term.  The most recent extension expired, leaving rural communities across the nation wondering if they will be able to maintain needed services.

Rural communities should not be asked to exhaust their resources and plan under a cloud of uncertainty because they house federally-managed, untaxable lands.  Until we are able to increase timber harvests to render such payments unnecessary, we must uphold our obligation to these communities to assist with funding roads, schools and other critical services. 

We have a lot more work ahead to ensure that this obligation is met.  Ultimately, we need a long-term solution that provides a consistent mechanism for the federal government to meet its responsibilities while controlling federal overspending.  The Senate-passed legislation are steps in the right direction.  As Congress works to fund federal priorities, I will continue to press for it to meet its responsibility to rural Idaho communities.

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