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Idaho lawmakers want federal public land appraised for taxes

The Committee on Federalism, which deals with state sovereignty issues, last month put out what is called a request for information, asking companies to submit ideas by Nov. 8. The committee has a $250,000 budget for the project.

Forested land. Photo courtesy of Idaho Department of Lands

Idaho is roughly 63% federal public land. But that land isn’t taxable by local governments.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in June announced that a federal program called PILT, or payment in lieu of taxes, would send $530 million this year to help counties pay for maintaining community services. Idaho received $34.5 million, but some state lawmakers say Idaho should get more.

The committee’s action follows the passage by lawmakers in the House and Senate in April of a concurrent resolution tasking the committee to find out how much money the federal public land would generate in property taxes if privately owned.

The resolution doesn’t say what the committee should do with that information once it’s obtained.

“It’s not to say we don’t sympathize with the counties, but from our perspective we don’t see a whole lot of value in having a big number you can wave in the air,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League. “It really won’t make much of a difference.”

The action by Idaho lawmakers is matched by legislation introduced in a U.S. Senate committee in March by the state’s two Republican senators. Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo put forward legislation intended to determine annually the value of land covered by the PILT program, how much tax revenue the land would generate if privately owned and how payments to states could more accurately reflect that tax revenue.

That legislation hasn’t advanced out of the committee.

U.S. lawmakers in both parties have at times taken issue with the PILT program and its payments, particularly Western states such as Idaho containing significant federal lands.

The payments are made annually by the Interior Department and its agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management. The payments also cover federal lands administered by the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies.

The payments are calculated based on the number of acres of federal land within each county or jurisdiction, and the population of that county or jurisdiction.

Idaho politicians in the resolution passed earlier this year take issue with that method.

“Without regard to the long-standing debate over whether the federal government should ever relinquish control of Idaho lands, as long as the federal government does withhold lands from being subject to tax, the federal government should pay the full amount in lieu of tax revenue denied our taxing entities,” the resolution states.

Idaho and other states, notably Utah, for years have tried to find a way for states to take control of federal public lands that have never belonged to the states, but have so far failed.

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