Western Lawmaker Wants to Sell-Off Federal Lands
Matters News Service
Rep. Chris Cannon, (R-UT) called upon President Bush to complete
his plan to inventory federal land holdings and then transfer surplus
and under-utilized federal lands to the states.
Cannon said that the 2006 budget contains a proposal to review federal
land holdings in the District of Columbia to determine if they would
have more value if owned by the District.
Cannon applauded the president's initiative and said the idea should
be carried further, to inventory and evaluate the millions of acres
the federal government controls in Utah and the other Western States.
The federal government owns more than 670 million acres in the United
States and that means states that host the government have a severely
diminished tax base and cannot fully meet the demands of the federal
government to fund law enforcement, environmental compliance, health
care, education and a myriad of other mandates.
The federal government compensates the loss of tax revenue through
the Payment In Lieu of Taxes program (PILT), but Congress has consistently
failed to fully fund the program. This year's PILT funding request
of $200 million is $26 million less than last year and is $150 million
short of full funding. The result is taxpayers must pay more in local
property taxes to make up the shortfall.
Freeing up federal lands
Tucked away on page 328 of President Bush's 2006 budget proposal
is an initiative to review federal lands in the District of Columbia
to determine whether any would be better utilized by the District.
This is a welcome development in a city whose growth has been stunted
by a wide-ranging federal presence. I applaud the president for initiating
an inventory of surplus federal land to be taken over by the District
or the private sector. Especially in the private sector, such real
estate can produce jobs and generate tax revenues for the District.
But the inventory should not stop at the District's borders. The same
federal land inventory is needed nationwide.
The federal government owns more than 670 million acres, almost one-third
of the land in the America. What is not known is whether that land
is being put to its best use. In September 2003, the General Services
Administration identified more than 5.1 million acres of federal land
as "vacant" with no federal purpose. The Bureau of Land
Management alone has more than 3 million acres that have been identified
as surplus and suitable for disposal. Furthermore, the General Accountability
Office has found that the federal government owns hundreds of thousands
of real property assets worth hundreds of billions of dollars which
are no longer consistent with agency missions and are no longer needed.
Many of those assets are in an alarming state of neglect and disrepair.
GAO also found that little is known about this property.
Federal ownership often carries unintended consequences. For example,
in the District, where 26.3 percent of the total acreage is owned
by the federal government, the District loses an estimated $400 million
to $1.1 billion a year in tax revenue. While that is significant,
I ask D.C. dwellers to imagine the revenues being lost in my home
state of Utah, where 66.5 percent of the land is federally owned.
In fact, there are 12 Western states that rank above the District
in federal land ownership, and they are losing billions in potential
tax revenue each year. The enormous economic burden on local governments
throughout the West is unbearable.
To make up for the shortfall, the federal government is supposed to
compensate nearly 1,900 local governments in 49 states, including
the District, under the Payment-in-Lieu-of-Taxes (PILT) program. This
funding helps pay for essential services such as environmental compliance,
law enforcement, health care, education, firefighting and search-and-rescue
operations. Despite widespread acknowledgement of the program's importance
and strong bipartisan support, PILT payments persistently fall substantially
short of the amount that would be generated if the same lands were
privately held and on county tax rolls, and far short of the costs
those lands impose on local governments.
This year's budget proposal is no exception. The PILT request is for
only $200 million, a $26 million cut from last year's appropriated
level and $150 million less than full funding. By not adequately funding
PILT, the federal government forces citizens in public-lands states
to pay more in local property taxes than other Americans.
The president should ensure that the federal land inventory he ordered
last year is completed and that ownership of surplus and under-utilized
land is transferred to the states. This will bolster Western economies
by giving them more tax revenue and job-creation opportunities. In
the meantime, the president should support a fully funded PILT program,
so that rural communities can begin to support the services for which
they rely on these payments.
The Congressional Western Caucus, an organization of nearly 60 members
of Congress from the West, recognizes the need to sustain a vibrant
Western economy for present and future generations. We applaud the
president for his approach in the District of Columbia and urge him
to consider the same for us out in the West.
Rep. Chris Cannon, Utah Republican, is chairman of the Congressional