Republican budget blueprint may cut off Nevada's land deals

WASHINGTON — A proposal to alter how the government sells off its excess public lands has raised antennas among Nevada members of Congress, at least some of whom fear it might cut off what has been a lucrative stream of funding to the state from the sale of federal property in Southern Nevada.

Since 1999, the Bureau of Land Management has distributed $3.4 billion to Nevada entities for land acquisitions, parks and trails, education, water infrastructure, Lake Tahoe restoration and other uses. The money was generated from auctioning or trading off 34,500 acres of land in the Las Vegas Valley, most of it during the go-go development years of 2003-06.

The strategy of keeping public land profits in-state was innovative at the time it was created by the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act of 1998. Since then, it has been used as a model for land sales in other states.

But a paragraph in the 2014 federal budget blueprint the House is expected to pass today calls for 70 percent of proceeds from certain land sales to be steered to the federal treasury for deficit reduction.

“The change would reduce the federal budget deficit and ensure that U.S. taxpayers benefit directly from land sales,” according to the paragraph tucked into the 235-page budget report.

The Republican-written budget does not mention the Southern Nevada land act by name, but it might not necessarily need to. The provision is worded in a way that is causing Nevada Democrats to raise alarms and gave them another reason to condemn the blueprint authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the chairman of the House Budget Committee.

“If ending the Medicare guarantee, eliminating 2 million jobs, gutting investment in clean energy, cutting funding for education, and stalling our economic recovery weren’t bad enough, the Republican budget specifically attacks investments in Southern Nevada’s infrastructure and economic development,” said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev.

“This is just another reason why the Ryan Republican budget would be disastrous for Nevada,” said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Republicans say the matter is not so clear. Some said they sniffed an attempt by Democrats to embarrass GOP lawmakers on the budget by leaking and spinning the provision.

“There is no specific assumption to eliminate SNPLMA” in the Republican budget, said Will Allison, House Budget Committee press secretary.

Staffers for Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., checked with the Budget Committee and were told the committee did not develop numbers as to how much money would be at stake from changing the Nevada act, a sign it is not being targeted, according to his spokesman Brian Baluta.

Republican Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., thinks the language in the House bill “is ambiguous,” spokeswoman Chandler Smith said.

Apart from a political exercise, the issue might end up being largely academic.

The Republican budget set to pass the House has been declared dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled Senate, which is working to pass its own budget by the end of the week. And if the two bodies end up negotiating their differences into a final product, aides said Reid as Senate majority leader would move to protect his home state funding.

Even beyond that, budget resolutions are nonbinding blueprints. Their recommendations are passed back to authorizing committees to be written into law. There would appear to be enough Nevadans on public lands committees — Heller in the Senate, Amodei and Rep. Steven Horsford in the House — to mount a fight against a proposed change.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the Nevada pot of money has been eyed for other uses. In 2005 and 2006, the Bush administration proposed in its annual budgets to redirect land sale profits into the treasury. It gave up the fight in May 2006 after Reid threatened to block the confirmation of Dirk Kempthorne to become Interior secretary.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.