By Thomas Mitchell
The checks are in the mail. Nevada’s U.S. senators both sent out press releases a couple of weeks ago boasting about all the money Nevada counties will be getting from the federal government to help cover the expense of having so much non-taxable federal public land within their borders — called Payment in Lieu of Taxes. This year’s checks for Nevada counties amount to $27.25 million, an increase of about $250,000 from the previous year.
“I applaud the Department of Interior for providing these payments to the state of Nevada,” said Jacky Rosen’s press release. “These funds will be used to support essential services — especially in our rural communities — such as law enforcement, education, emergency services, health care, and road maintenance.”
Catherine Cortez Masto’s press release states, “The Department of the Interior’s PILT program is a vital resource for Nevada’s local governments and helps fund the public safety, housing, transportation and outdoor recreation projects that Nevada’s rural counties need to thrive. I’ll continue to support the long-term stabilization of the PILT program so that local leaders and innovators can invest in development projects right here in our communities in Nevada, and plan for the future with certainty that federal support will be there for them.”
Neither makes any mention of the fact the PILT handout nationally was cut by 7 percent from the previous year. Nor do they mention that the $500 million being doled out to all the states this year is a paltry fraction of the $11.9 billion in revenue that federal land generates annually from oil and gas leasing, livestock grazing, timber harvesting, etc.
If the states controlled the land they could collect that $11.9 billion instead of the pitiful $500 million — which amounts to a parsimonious 4 percent of the revenue the land generates. Pennies in an alms cup.
Nor do our Democratic senators note the impenetrable formula used to calculate the checks, which is based on the number of acres of federal land within each county and the population of that county.
While 85 percent of Nevada land is federally controlled, its total PILT checks equal 48 cents per acre of federal land, about the same as the prior year, while every other Western state, except Alaska, gets at least double that amount, even though their acreage percentage is far less and their populations not that dissimilar, except for California.
This year, Utah is getting $1.24 per acre of federal land; Arizona, $1.38; Idaho, 99 cents; California, $1.19; Washington, $1.92; Oregon, $1.19; Wyoming, $1.01; New Mexico, $1.80; Montana, $1.80; and Colorado, $1.68.
And the checks within Nevada vary wildly. For example, Esmeralda County gets 7 cents an acre, while Douglas gets $2.74; Eureka, 17 cents; Washoe, $1.25; Clark, 75 cents; White Pine, 25 cents; Nye, 39 cents; Elko, 46 cents; Lincoln, 15 cents; Mineral, 39 cents.
Perhaps our senators should ask the Interior Department for a clearer explanation of just how the checks are calculated, because the acreage and population explanation doesn’t really pencil out.
While Nevada counties get checks totaling more than $27 million for having almost 57 million acres of non-taxable federal land covered by the PILT charity, neighboring Utah counties are getting checks totaling almost $41 million for less than 33 million acres, even though its population is only 200,000 greater than Nevada’s 3 million.
Idaho counties are getting checks totaling more than $32 million, though it has only 32 million acres of federal public lands and a population of only 1.8 million. New Mexico counties are getting $40 million though the state has less than half the public land as Nevada and only 2 million population. Montana’s checks total $34 million though it also has half the acreage of public land as Nevada and only 1 million population.
A report from the legislatively created Nevada Public Land Management Task Force noted a couple of years ago that, while the Bureau of Land Management loses 91 cents an acre, the average income for the four states that have public trust land was $28.59 per acre. The task force estimated Nevada could net $114 million a year by taking over just 10 percent of Bureau of Land Management lands.
So, senators, stop bragging about those niggardly PILT checks and do something about giving Nevada a fair share of the revenue from its public lands.
Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at thomasmnv@ yahoo.com. He also blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/