Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson today lauded provisions included in the Omnibus Appropriations Act for FY14 that protect Western interests and bring more accountability to federal spending. Simpson, former chair of the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, praised provisions included in the bill to provide for wildfire suppression, address public lands issues, and make litigation costs transparent.
The bill fully funds wildfire suppression accounts at the 10-year average, providing $3.94 billion for wildfire fighting and prevention programs within the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior. It also fully reimburses agencies for what is known as “fire-borrowing”—when agencies must drain non-suppression accounts to pay for wildfire fighting costs that exceed fire budgets—in 2013.
“There is no doubt that providing adequate funding for wildfire suppression must be a top priority, and I’m pleased that this bill provides full funding for these efforts,” said Simpson. “As important, however, is recognizing the impact that wildfire suppression costs have on agencies’ abilities to restore our forests to a healthier state. Fire borrowing robs the agencies of the resources they need for good forest management, creating a cycle of higher costs and unhealthier forests. This bill attempts to stop that cycle by repaying accounts that were drained during last year’s fire season and rejecting significant proposed cuts to this year’s hazardous fuels budget.”
The bill includes a number of provisions authored by Simpson that are aimed at preserving responsible access to public land. Among them are provisions to:
- Extend for two years long-standing authority to allow the BLM to extend expiring grazing permits while they complete the environmental work required for renewals;
- Make vacant grazing allotments available to grazing permittees adversely impacted by drought or wildfire;
- Provide for the trailing of livestock across public lands during fiscal years 2014 and 2015;
- Continue important conservation efforts to prevent the sage-grouse from being listed as an endangered species;
- Restore $1 million to compensate ranchers for livestock killed by wolves;
- Prevent agencies from limiting recreational shooting and hunting on federal lands; and
- Prohibit the Department of Interior from implementing the Wild Lands initiative.
Simpson also praised language that directs the Department of Interior, the Forest Service, and the EPA to make public information regarding the cost of work requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the cost of fees paid by the agencies under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA).
“Frivolous lawsuits are one of the largest unbudgeted costs for land management agencies. They divert funding away from critical priorities, but they are rarely accounted for by those agencies,” said Simpson. “In recent years I’ve worked to bring these issues to light and ensure that Congress is aware of these costs—and in fact that agencies themselves are aware of them. I’m pleased that this bill expands on those efforts to bring costs under control and ensure greater accountability of taxpayer dollars.”
Simpson also commented on the fact that the omnibus appropriations bill does not include funding for the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program. PILT payments go out to counties with a high percentage of federal land, essentially compensating these counties for the fact that the federal government does not pay property taxes. Since 2008, PILT has been automatically funded as a mandatory program, but this authority expired in October at the end of FY2013.
“Ensuring that PILT is adequately funded for 2014 remains one of my top priorities. While I am deeply concerned about the lapse of funding for this program, I have been assured that PILT payments will go out for 2014,” said Simpson. “At the end of the day, I hope that we are able to shift PILT back to mandatory funding, likely as part of the Farm Bill, where it is not subject to the whims of the annual budget process. PILT is essentially the government’s property tax on the federal lands it owns, and it needs to be paid in full and on time. Since PILT moved to mandatory funding in 2008, counties have had certainty that the federal government will meet its obligations to them, and I am hopeful that authorizers will act quickly to make sure that continues.”
The Omnibus Appropriations Act is expected to be considered by the House of Representatives later today.