By Thomas Mitchell
While there was ample news coverage of the legislative session’s debates over taxes, gay marriage, medical marijuana, gun background checks and the state dog, there was hardly a ripple produced by the one bill that potentially could have the greatest economic impact on Nevada’s future.
The Legislature passed and Gov. Brian Sandoval unceremoniously signed Assembly Bill 227, which creates a Nevada Land Management Task Force to study the transfer of certain federal public lands to the state of Nevada.
The 17-member Task Force is supposed to report its findings and recommendations by Sept. 1, 2014, to the Legislative Committee on Public Lands “in contemplation of Congress turning over the management and control of those public lands to the State of Nevada on or before June 30, 2015.”
Nevada is the fifth Western state currently taking such action. (The citizens of Nevada voted to do something similar in 1996, but that vote has been totally ignored and largely forgotten.)
The Task Force is supposed to identify what federal land should be transferred to the state and what the economic impact would be. It is generally thought National Parks and Recreation areas would be excluded.
Elko Republican Assemblyman John Ellison, the primary sponsor of AB227, said, “Governor Sandoval and our state legislature have taken the first step in fulfilling our responsibility to our children and for the future of our state in making Congress honor the same promise to Nevada that it made and kept with Hawaii and all other states east of Colorado.”
Roughly half of the land in Western states is controlled by the federal government, with Nevada having the largest percentage at approximately 85 percent. The federal government controls less than 5 percent of the land in Eastern states.
As if on cue, Harry Reid, Nevada’s senior senator and the powerful majority leader of the Senate, this past week announced Nevada will be getting $23 million in Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT), which is intended to compensate counties for non-taxable federal land in their jurisdictions.
Reid helpfully noted, “The Interior Department collects about $14 billion in revenue annually from commercial activities on federal lands, such as oil and gas leasing, livestock grazing and timber harvesting.”
What he did not say is that the grand total of PILT dollars doled out nationwide is $400 million. That’s $35 sent to Washington for every $1 sent back as PILT.
“PILT payments have always been crucial for Nevada counties and local governments to provide essential services like education, emergency services, law enforcement, infrastructure and healthcare,” Sen. Reid boasted. “At a time when unemployment continues to hurt our state’s economic growth, I am pleased this funding will help save and create so many jobs in these areas and I will continue to work to ensure our rural counties have access to these important funds.”
What the most powerful man in the Senate did not say is that Nevada gets a paltry 41 cents per acre while neighboring states get double and triple that amount. Nor did he point out that PILT amounts to only $8.50 per Nevadan, less than Montana’s $26.37, less than Idaho’s $16.50 or Utah’s $12.40.
Additionally, PILT payments to the counties are wildly disparate, with Esmeralda County getting a miserly 6 cents an acre, while Carson City, Douglas, Lyon and Storey rake in more than $2 per acre. Other examples: Elko, 36 cents; Eureka, 15; Lincoln, 13; Mineral, 33; and White Pine, 22.
Instead of sending all those grazing fees and royalties to Washington, Nevada could collect $805 million directly — assuming that 35-to-1 ratio — plus untold property taxes, instead of accepting a meager $23 million trickling down from Washington.
Rep. Steven Horsford, who represents the Southern half of rural Nevada, said of AB227, “I have always believed that Nevada deserves more control over its land than it currently has, and the Task Force authorized by this bill will help our state identify what we can do to move forward in exercising more control over our land.”
Brian Baluta, a spokesman for Rep. Mark Amodei, who represents the Northern half of Nevada, said, “Representative Amodei supports home grown solutions for greater local control and input with respect to Nevada’s public lands. He introduced legislation in the House to help expedite the disposal of federal land near growing communities in Nevada and throughout the West.”
Will the Task Force be any more successful in getting a fair hearing in Washington than the voters were in 1996?
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