In subcommittee hearing, Simpson questions Salazar on PILT, the Department’s national sage-grouse conservation strategy, energy development, and wildland fire funding
Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson, who chairs the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, today held his first subcommittee hearing of the year, as Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar testified before the subcommittee regarding the Department of Interior’s FY2013 budget request. During the hearing, Simpson questioned Salazar on a wide variety of issues, including PILT, the Department’s national sage-grouse conservation strategy, oil and gas exploration and permitting, and wildland fire.
Because federal lands may not generally be taxed by state or local governments, the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program was created to compensate local governments for the loss of income due to the presence of federal land in their state or county. In 2008, PILT was authorized as a mandatory program and fully funded for five years, shifting it out of the Interior budget through September 30, 2012. The Department proposes to extend the current funding for an additional year, legislation that needs to be taken up by the appropriate authorizing committee, but does not provide a clear offset.
“It’s important to note that, while that authorization expires at the end of this fiscal year, the federal government’s obligation to fund PILT does not,” said Simpson. “If Congress is unable to reauthorize mandatory spending for PILT in the coming weeks, we are going to have to pay for it out of this budget, and it will require cutting money from the Department’s other priorities.”
Simpson also signaled that he will have more questions for the Department and the Bureau of Land Management regarding the impact that the budget will have on grazing throughout the west. He expressed concern about cuts for grazing programs in the budget proposal and raised the issue of sage-grouse conservation efforts, noting that a decision to list sage-grouse as an endangered species would have huge ramifications across Idaho, devastating land users and undermining BLM’s land management efforts. The Department included $15 million in its budget for a recently-unveiled BLM national sage-grouse strategy to address sage-grouse conservation.
Simpson also expressed concern about proposals to cut funding for hazardous fuels reduction, as well as a proposal by the Department to re-instate language requiring 90 percent of the funds to be used in the wildland urban interface.
“Reducing the threat of catastrophic wildfires is always a top priority for Congress and the Department. Last year, however, the Committee was very concerned about the constraints put on the use of hazardous fuel dollars. These funds help clear brush and prevent forest and rangeland fires…The problem [with the requirement to spend 90 percent of funds in the wildland urban interface] is that much of the land managed by the Department is not in the wildland urban interface,” said Simpson. “The FY12 bill specifically directs the Department to remove this requirement and instead allow the agencies to allocate funds based on the highest priority projects in the highest priority areas, and I was dismayed to hear that the Department and OMB are still pursuing this requirement despite the report language. I hope you will work with me to ensure that we are complying with the FY12 language.”
Much of the hearing focused on the Department of Interior’s proposals regarding energy development, including both conventional and renewable energy. Simpson warned that the subcommittee would be holding the Department fully accountable for funding provided in FY11 and FY12 to ensure that permits and plans for oil and gas production can move forward.
“We’ve hardly scratched the surface in meeting our full potential in oil and gas exploration and production—both onshore and on the outer continental shelf,” said Simpson. “The [newly created Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement] now have both the funding and the tools you told us they need. With gas prices on the rise again, the public and Congress will have no patience for more delays. It’s time for the bureaus to get to work.”
In coming weeks, Chairman Simpson will hold hearings on agency budgets, during which many of these issues will be visited in more detail.