U.S. SENATE News:
WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Tom Udall won a commitment from a powerful Senate committee chairwoman Thursday to work with him to find reliable funding for the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program, a critical source of revenue for local governments throughout New Mexico and the rural West.
Udall secured her support after making his case for the program in a speech on the Senate floor. PILT funding expired at the end of last year, and Udall and others are fighting to find full funding. Udall argued in his speech that unless Congress renews PILT funding, local communities will see drastic budget cuts. “We must find a solution, and we must find that solution soon,” he said in his speech, which also addressed funding for New Mexico in a major appropriations bill.
In a colloquy — a formal conversation between senators on the floor — Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski of Maryland pointed out that many Eastern lawmakers aren’t as familiar with the program, which was created to compensate rural counties that contain large amounts of federal land. Last year, New Mexico received more than $34 million to help counties pay for services such as law enforcement, road repairs, and schools. With funding uncertain this year, many communities across the state are concerned about their 2014 budgets.
A former Baltimore city council member, Mikulski said she understood how local governments struggle to pay for important services and that she appreciated Udall’s long-time advocacy for PILT.
Mikulski: There is tremendous land owned by the federal government in New Mexico. Am I correct, Senator?
Udall: You are absolutely correct, Madam Chair. Some of our counties, 70 percent of the land in the county is federal government land. And so what happens, as you’ve pointed out, is the federal government says because that can’t be developed and it can’t be taxed we’re going to pay you in lieu of taxes. … The program, which has been in place a very long time, is expired. We’ve run out of money. And these counties need to be able to plan for their projects.
Mikulski: I think this is an issue of fairness and justice. … I came through the route of starting in the city council. We’re local government people, and we know how we had to struggle with unfunded mandates. … And I think we have to resolve this PILT issue. I want to say to the gentleman from New Mexico who’s spoken ardently and frequently to me about this issue and to all other senators from the West who are on both sides of the aisle, let’s work on this. And I pledge to you that as we move on this year’s, the fiscal 2015 [appropriations bill], if it’s appropriate to be in Appropriations we’ll be doing it. But I will also work with other relevant authorizing committees. We’ve got to crack this problem. It’s been languishing far too long and I think that it’s a justice issue that if the federal government owns land for which it doesn’t pay taxes, prohibits it from then being placed in other developmental use that could be taxed, we have to in some way pay our fair share. Isn’t that kind of the gentleman’s perspective?
Udall: That’s exactly my perspective. These counties — the program’s run out. The counties count on the money because they’ve been getting it year after year, and we just have to find a way to do this.
Congress fully funded PILT consistently from 2008 through 2012. Funding was then extended another year, leaving no plan for the program beyond 2013. In 2011, Udall, along with then-Sen. Jeff Bingaman, helped lead the fight in the Senate for mandatory, long-term support of PILT and Secure Rural Schools funding to give local communities assurance that they can depend on this lifeline for long-term planning. Last year, Udall and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), along with Sen. Martin Heinrich, wrote the chairs and ranking members of the Senate Appropriations Committee and Interior subcommittee calling on them to fully support and fund PILT.