Udall, Heinrich Call for Financial Certainty for Rural Counties

Bipartisan group of 31 Senators request two-year reauthorization for PILT and SRS programs

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Oct. 3, 2019) – U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich today requested that any end-of-year legislation include at least a two-year reauthorization of the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) and the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (SRS) programs. Both of these vital programs ensure New Mexico's rural counties that have large amounts of non-taxable federal public lands-such as national forests, Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) lands, and National Park Service lands-are able to pay for police and fire protection, emergency response, schools, road maintenance, and other crucial services.

In a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the senators wrote, "Congress has an obligation to ensure counties with large swaths of federally-owned, tax-exempt forests and rangelands can adequately provide essential services for their residents. As history has proved, without the certainty of these two critical programs, schools, libraries, and jails will close. The services counties continue to provide will see a reduction in staffing and resources. Roads will go unpaved and become unsafe. Mental health and physical health services will be scaled back and in some cases even ended. Fewer and fewer law enforcement officers will be forced to patrol larger and larger areas.

"As we work to establish a permanent county payments solution, diversify rural economies, improve forest management and forest health, strengthen historic forest revenue sharing with local governments, and ensure that our public lands provide a range of values such as clean water, jobs, grazing opportunities, and wood fiber for local economies, a short-term reauthorization of at least two years is critical to provide fiscal certainty for counties containing federally-owned lands," the senators continued.

For Fiscal Year 2019, New Mexico counties received over $40 million in PILT funding. In Fiscal Year 2018, New Mexico counties received $9.6 million in Secure Rural Schools funding.

In addition to Udall and Heinrich, the letter was signed by 29 of their Senate colleagues. The text of the letter is below and available here.

Dear Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Schumer:

We strongly urge the inclusion of at least a two-year reauthorization of Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) and the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (SRS) -- two programs that enjoy tremendous bipartisan support -- in any end-of-the-year legislation.

Because the federal government does not pay local property taxes, rural counties containing large swaths of federal lands cannot collect this critical revenue source and are routinely forced to make difficult financial decisions. Since 1976, nearly 1,900 counties across 49 states have relied on PILT to provide essential county services like law enforcement, jails, mental health programs, and libraries. PILT will expire at the end of fiscal year 2019, with final payments distributed to county governments earlier this year. We appreciate the work of the Appropriations Committee to include full funding for PILT in their fiscal year 2020 Interior and Environment legislation recently reported to the full Senate with unanimous support, and urge its swift consideration before the full Senate.

For over two decades, SRS has been a critical lifeline to over 775 counties in more than 40 states by helping fund over 4,400 schools, road maintenance, law enforcement, and search and rescue operations on federal lands. Historically, the federal government shared with county governments 25 percent of timber sales from federal forest lands and 50 percent of revenues from certain lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Due to declining timber sales and county revenues, Congress first passed SRS in 2000 to provide a measure of compensation for counties containing federal timber land. SRS expired at the end of fiscal year 2018, with the final payments distributed to county governments early in calendar year 2019. 

Congress has an obligation to ensure counties with large swaths of federally-owned, tax-exempt forests and rangelands can adequately provide essential services for their residents. As history has proved, without the certainty of these two critical programs, schools, libraries, and jails will close. The services counties continue to provide will see a reduction in staffing and resources. Roads will go unpaved and become unsafe. Mental health and physical health services will be scaled back and in some cases even ended. Fewer and fewer law enforcement officers will be forced to patrol larger and larger areas. 

As we work to establish a permanent county payments solution, diversify rural economies, improve forest management and forest health, strengthen historic forest revenue sharing with local governments, and ensure that our public lands provide a range of values such as clean water, jobs, grazing opportunities, and wood fiber for local economies, a short-term reauthorization of at least two years is critical to provide fiscal certainty for counties containing federally-owned lands. 

In the interest of working together in a bipartisan way to support local, rural communities, we ask that you include at least a two-year reauthorization of the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program and Secure Rural Schools in any end-of-the-year package. We appreciate your assistance and look forward to working with you.  

Sincerely,