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Editorial: Utah counties deserve PILT assistance

Utah counties need, deserve the aid

First Published Jan 17 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Jan 17 2014 01:01 am

Yes. It is more than a little bit rich when the cut-federal-spending crowd finds itself dealing with the painful, real life consequences of, well, cutting federal spending.

But cut Utah Republicans a little slack. The sudden loss of $35.4 million in annual aid to Utah counties is a both a cruel surprise and an abdication of the federal responsibility to help local governments make up for the fact that the federal lands within those jurisdictions are not subject to local taxes.

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Utahns such as Reps. Chris Stewart, Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop are right to cry foul at the fact that budget negotiations between leaders of their own Republican Party and the Democrats left that aid out of the compromise $1.1 trillion budget. They will rightly seek to have it restored.

For nearly 40 years, Congress has funded what’s called the PILT program, which stands for "payment in lieu of taxes." In recent years, it has sent some $400 million a year to counties in nearly every state to help with the expense of maintaining public services in localities where some, or a great deal, of a county is tax-exempt federal land.

That matters a lot in Utah, where 90 percent of a county can be owned by one or another federal agency, yet locals are still expected to provide roads, public safety and other services to 100 percent of a county, not just for the locals but also for visitors who were attracted by the federal lands.

There is a good argument to be made that PILT revenues should not only be preserved, but expanded, especially in areas where the relevant federal property is not income-producing, tourist-attracting parks but more pedestrian expanses that may provide crucial ecological balance but without the tour-bus revenue.

At the same time, Utah is a net collector of federal largesse. The British magazine The Economist, a free-enterprise oriented publication, figures that, over the 20 years ending in 2009, Utah received some $38 billion more from Uncle Sam than its taxpayers remitted to the Internal Revenue Service. PILT is part of that. So is all the federal money spent at Hill Air Force Base and other military installations. And on operating national parks and other federal lands.

Those lands belong to all of the American people. So all of the American people have a responsibility to be good neighbors and help pay for public services around their holdings.

Which they might be more willing to do if Utah would end its nonsensical quests for the right to run useless roads through those lands and to seek the "return" of property that was never held by the state of Utah or any of its inhabitants.

We should be good neighbors, too.

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