By Todd Devlin
Prairie County Commissioner
Many in Prairie County may not be aware that representation on the federal level for the county has been occurring for the past three years. I’ve had the opportunity to sit on the National Association Counties Public Lands Steering Committee as well as serve as vice-chair for the Montana Association of Counties Public Lands Committee. Since 2007, I’ve been traveling to Washington D.C. every March to discuss, lobby, and act on issues of rural and public lands. Every May, I attend the Western Interregional Conference of NACo, which will be held in Billings this year. I’ve attended the NACo annual conference every July.
Because public land policy is a vital issue for Prairie County, representation is needed. Prairie County contains about 43 percent of federally managed lands and is right at 50 percent when adding state lands.
Due to the split ownership and pattern of ownership in our county, federal actions affect private rights to a higher degree than most areas.
Prairie County is also a member of Western Counties Alliance. This is a special interest group that lobbies for specific issues that are found only in the nation’s western counties. They coordinate with the Washington D.C. trip to assist Prairie County on issues, opening doors to congressional offices, including our own Congressional Delegation along with other Congressional Delegates. An invitation into Senator Reid’s office has even been extended, due to Western Counties Alliance. When offered an invitation to the majority leader’s office, party affiliation has no basis - you go.
PILT (Federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes Program) and the inequity of PILT is not only my and Prairie County’s initial drive to be active in NACo, but educating others on PILT is as well. I have taught seminars explaining the program at the request of the Department of Interior, Montana Association of Counties, and the National Association of Counties.
The first and foremost reason for going to Washington D.C. every March is to coordinate with other counties who are roughly in the same situation as Prairie County on the inequitable issue of PILT and federal land management issues in general. I’ve also been pursuing an error that was found in the Department of Interior’s calculations for payments to counties throughout the United States. This protest, appeal, and motion to reconsider have all been filed and completed within the Department of Interior’s Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA). One cannot just sue the federal government, but instead it is necessary to go through a very lengthy internal process.
Documentation of the appeal is all on file at the Prairie County Courthouse and a decision can be found on the Interior Board of Land Appeals Web site. It’s about 150 pages and took over 400 days. Ninety percent of the time taken to do this was NOT on county time. Prairie County Attorney Becky Convery worked extensively on this protest. Representatives from other counties throughout the West have commented on the brilliant legal portion of the appeal. To put it bluntly ... our county attorney trashed every argument the Department of Interior’s Solicitors Office came up with in case law.
Prior to filing the protest, it was known that this was merely a technicality. The Department of Interior and IBLA would deny or dismiss the appeal. But this step was required before Congress or the federal courts could address the issue.
This protest states that there was approximately a $100 million error by the Department in disbursements from 1995 – 2007. Prairie County had a shortfall of about $20-30 thousand, which is not the big issue.
The big issue is that, politically, it made it impossible to get consensus from counties on PILT reform because some counties had been overpaid and were protected when underfunded and opposed PILT reform, while others supported reform because they were underpaid and exposed when underfunded. Even if formula change doesn’t happen quickly, the prorate process must be changed due to the foreseen fact that money is going to get very tight in Washington D.C. in the not to distant future.
So, what was done?
I have spoken to staff of Senators Reid, Baucus, Tester, and Risch. A brief has been provided to the entire Western Congressional Caucus, as well as to the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior. I have spoken to the Chief of Staff for the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee and with Congressmen Heller, Rehberg, Bishop, and Matheson. I introduced a PILT reform resolution with NACo that passed the subcommittee of Federal Land Payments 22 to 12. Cody Stewart, executive director of the Western Congressional Caucus, has also been informed on this issue.
Topics covered at these meetings have included oil and gas revenue sharing, PILT reform, PILT error on current formula, geothermal revenue (we did not want the federal policy for geothermal to infiltrate other federal revenue sharing because with geothermal the Department of Interior keeps all the money), transmission lines, sage grouse, revenue sharing, wind power, coal generation, strict adherence to the Federal Land Policy Management Act by land management agencies, Revised Statute 2477 Right of Ways, and multiple use of federal managed properties.
What has happened?
I believe that PILT reform is on the verge of happening, mainly due to it being discriminatory and violating the Civil Right Act of 1964, Title VI. It violates the Act by paying on average less per acre in PILT as Average Median Household Income decreases and it pays less on average as the percent of county population over 65 years of age increases. This is discrimination against low income and the elderly. Both of these issues are huge to Prairie County and both are consistent throughout the United States on average.
The Department also violated the Federal Land Policy Management Act of 1976 by not getting local public and government input on how to prorate the PILT formula when it was first underfunded, and thereby disbursing payments that were not as equitable to the local and federal taxpayer within statute guidelines. This was a direct violation of at least two policies in the Act. I am hoping this is finalized within five years. PILT education is the biggest issue due to the complication of the formula.
On the PILT protest and appeal, the Department of Interior’s office of intergovernmental affairs has now referred the case back to Office of Budget for reconsideration and the IBLA file has been delivered to almost everyone that was spoken to on Capitol Hill.
The Sage Grouse issue has been delayed for another day of debate. A sage grouse endangered listing would virtually stop all development on federal, state, and private ground in the West. Prairie County has limited sage grouse habitat and due to that fact the Federal Fish and Wildlife will scrutinize that closely with plans to increase populations if it is listed.
One has to remember that three factors facilitate change. They are: Unconstitutionality of decisions, strong public outcry and issues that draw votes. Apathy will only deteriorate livelihoods within our county.
This involvement costs money. Every attempt is made to reduce cost for these trips - from choosing cheaper motel rooms and cheaper means of travel.
Realizing that tax thresholds are a very big concern of the Board of Commission, it is vitally important to our constituents to pursue non–tax revenue sources that are justifiably entitled to the county. We must educate our children, protect our community and lands, keep records, address elderly issues, and, last but not least, make sure that roads for transportation improve. I believe with our low tax base due to federal holdings and lower than average incomes, county representation on the national level must continue to happen.
Published March 31, 2010