House tucks funding for Utah counties in farm bill
Washington • Tucked into a bill that provides assistance to farmers and food for the poor is money to help rural counties loaded with federal land.
The House passed a long overdue farm bill Wednesday and if it passes the Senate as expected, the lands-payment program that predominantly helps Western states like Utah will survive another year.
It's called payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILT, and in the past year it provided $35 million to counties in Utah. The only state that received more of this money was California. PILT is intended to help areas where public lands cut deep into the local tax base and that means most of Utah, as about two-third of the state is owned by the federal government.
A recently passed budget bill neglected to fund the $410 million PILT program, causing an uproar among Western lawmakers from both parties. These critics, led by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, secured a promise from House leaders to fund PILT in the farm bill, using some of the $23 billion in savings from reduced food stamps and ending direct payments to farmers.
Bishop is satisfied with the deal but wants to move the program into the regular budget in the years to come, giving it a better chance of renewal . But he warns that local leaders who rely on the program should get used to a fight over funding.
"Counties have to realize you are dealing with the federal government," he said. "If you think the federal government is going to give you stability, you're crazy."
While the farm bill funds most programs for five years, the extension of PILT is only for one year, meaning Western lawmakers will have to fight the same battle in the next budget negotiations.
PILT funding is based on population and the number of acres of public lands. All 29 counties in Utah received at least some of that money in 2013, with Tooele County getting the biggest share at $3.2 million, followed by Iron County ($3 million) and Washington County ($2.7 million). Salt Lake County, the state's most populous, received just $226,000 last year.