EDITORIAL: Paltry PILT makes case for transfer of federal land

The farm bill on its way to President Barack Obama’s desk is a typical Washington Christmas tree, so much so that it specifically mentions Christmas trees. (You’ll pay a 15-cent tax on your next fresh-cut conifer, thanks to the bill.)

One of the add-ons is a provision that benefits Nevada governments: the payment in lieu of taxes program, better known as PILT. Property taxes are mandatory for private landowners, but they’re optional for the country’s richest land baron: Uncle Sam. Congress gets to decide exactly how much Washington pays to counties for the federal government’s vast holdings, no matter how much the land is worth. Until last month, lawmakers had decided to pay nothing. But a PILT appropriation was added to the nearly $1 trillion abomination of agriculture policy, thanks to lawmakers from Western states with vast amounts of federal acreage.

Washington owns about 28 percent of all the land in the United States — and a jaw-dropping 86 percent of Nevada. The more federal land in a state, the smaller the property tax rolls. And because federal agencies so tightly restrict the use of Washington’s land, whether it involves recreation or mining, Nevada and other Western states have significantly less opportunity for economic development.

Considering the value of so much federal land, which has vast amounts of energy reserves, PILT checks are laughably small. The farm bill’s allocation of more than $400 million is about the same as last year’s PILT payout, which gave Nevada counties $23.3 million for their roughly 56 million federal acres — about 40 cents per acre. And that $400 million is far less than what the Interior Department collects in leases and fees.

Lawmakers act like they’re handing out presents when they bring PILT money home. It’s disgraceful that Nevada’s rural counties have become so dependent on these paltry payments.

“These dollars pay for education, law enforcement, infrastructure and other vital social services,” Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., who voted for the farm bill, said in support of PILT. “This one-year renewal gives some certainty to local governments in planning their budgets, but we need to continue to work on permanent funding.”

No. Although requiring Washington to pay property tax bills based on counties’ assessed valuations would be more just, making federal taxpayers cough up even more money for land they can’t use isn’t the answer.

The problem isn’t that Washington pays too little. It’s that Washington has too much land — so much that dozens of counties will never be able to grow their economies to their full potential.

Rep. Horsford and the rest of the Nevada delegation must push for the release of huge chunks of federal land to local control, with the goal of eventually transferring that land to private ownership. That would be a Christmas miracle worth celebrating.