WASHINGTON — Utah's House members again are pushing for their fellow House members to fully fund the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program cut short in the Bush administration's budget proposal.

Payment-in-lieu-of-taxes funds, known as PILT, make up for lost property taxes on federal lands within the state. Utah, like other Western states with large areas of public land, is hurt by any decrease in the overall PILT payment fund because it loses out on money that is specifically set aside to make up for money the state can't collect from property taxes on the federal land.

In a letter sent to Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that creates the Interior Department spending bill and the subcommittee's top Republican, Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and other delegation members say they are "disappointed" that the administration cut PILT funding again.

The proposed budget for fiscal year 2009 would cut PILT by $34 million from what Congress approved for fiscal year 2008.

"PILT is not just a 'handout' for public lands communities; it is the federal government fulfilling its obligation to the communities that house the public lands," according to Matheson's letter, also signed by lawmakers from Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho. "Without these funds many rural communities would be unable to provide even the most fundamental services to both their residents and the users of the federal lands."

Matheson and the other House members told the subcommittee leadership they "believe that the PILT program warrants the priority of the federal government."

Meanwhile, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, are part of a letter by the Congressional Western Caucus set to be sent to Dicks and Tiahrt that also wants full PILT funding.

The final draft of the letter still needs to be approved, but an early version points out large federal land areas make states lose out on state tax revenue for schools, law enforcement, health care and other programs. PILT, ideally, is supposed to fill the void.

"These funds pay for teachers, buy books and equipment, and help rural areas close the digital divide," according to a draft of the letter. "PILT funds provide for search and rescue operations on federal lands, as well as the infrastructure necessary for communities to host visitors to public lands."

The caucus points out that fully funding the PILT program in 2009 is especially important because of a 2 percent reduction in mineral leasing funds, which will pull even more money away from Western states.

"The loss of the mineral leasing funds, combined with the lack of tax base cripples western communities and threatens their survival," according to a draft of the caucus letter.

"The administration has consistently low-balled us on PILT funding, and it's frustrating," Bishop said. "Our counties in Utah need and deserve this funding, and more importantly they need more of this land back under local control and on the tax rolls. The delegation has worked well together in the past on this issue, and we've succeeded in boosting the funding level up. We're making that same effort again, to increase PILT funding, and I think and hope that we'll be successful again."

Last year, the House approved an amendment by Cannon, Matheson and Bishop that brought the PILT funding up from $233 million to about $252 million.

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