Local officials are hoping a long-overdue state budget will contain a much-needed increase to payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) on state-owned forest and game lands.
“Since the 2015-16 state budget impasse dragged on, attention has turned toward having the PILT increase approved through the budget settlement process,” Potter County Commissioner Paul Heimel told The Era on Thursday. “We remain confident that our supporters are fully committed to that.”
One of those supporters is state Rep. Martin Causer, R-Turtlepoint, who, along with House Majority Whip Mike Hanna, introduced legislation to increase the PILT in 2015.
“Land tax fairness is certainly one of the most important issues facing our region and other rural areas across the Commonwealth,” Causer said. “Government ownership of vast amounts of land is shrinking the local tax base, leaving local governments and school districts with nowhere else to go but the pockets of private property owners when it comes time to balance their budgets.”
Under House Bill 344, the increase to PILT on state-owned forest and game lands would go from $3.60 per acre to $6 per acre and be divided equally among municipalities, school districts and counties. For House Bill 343, 20 percent of total revenue brought in from the sale of timber, oil and natural gas on most state-owned lands would be put into a restricted fund for disbursement to local governments, proportionally based on the number of acres of state land in every municipality, school district and county.
“We have a strong coalition who continues to work to build bipartisan support for this legislation, which is awaiting consideration in the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee,” Causer said.
To state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Brockway, the tax fairness issue is vital to the region, and he hopes it will move forward in the House soon.
“In 2006 I fought hard to increase the PILT from $1.20 per acre to the current $3.60 per acre,” Scarnati said. “However, it is clear that this amount should be increased once again. Increasing the PILT is a vital part of ensuring fairness for rural areas of our state, by making sure that rural Pennsylvanians are not burdened more than those who reside in more populated areas of our Commonwealth.”
The effort has also garnered support from Gov. Tom Wolf.
“The administration is happy to work with local officials to understand concerns regarding the payment in lieu of taxes,” said Wolf’s Press Secretary Jeffrey Sheridan.
As things move forward, several positive signs exist, Heimel said.
“Senator Joseph Scarnati addressed the issue in a strongly worded and highly effective editorial carried in newspapers across the state,” Heimel said. “Representative Martin Causer alluded to the PILT issue just last week at the Denton Hill State Park meeting, when he pointed out the millions of dollars that state forest land generates for Harrisburg, with so little coming back to the host school districts, counties and townships.”
What’s more, Heimel said officials are set to lend a hand to legislative leaders.
“We have eye-opening maps and financial analysis readily accessible on our website, pastatelandtaxfairness.com, and are eager to follow up on our one-on-one meetings with more than 50 Senate and House members who now support our mission,” Heimel said. “Should the efforts to resolve this through the 2015-16 budget settlement process fail, our coalition will redouble its efforts to have the PILT increase approved through the traditional channels in the 2016-17 legislative session.”
To push for cause further, Heimel, Cameron County Commissioner Phil Jones and Clinton County Commissioners Pete Smeltz and Jeff Snyder have visited with lawmakers, and they plan to meet with them again.
“We'll also reaffirm the support that we've received from the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Association of Township Supervisors. Pennsylvania School Boards Association, Pennsylvania State Grange, and other organizations,” Heimel said. “But that is a last resort. We are still hoping for action any day now.”
All told, Heimel said officials believe the case has been firmly established, and many state lawmakers support the measure that would provide significant benefits to school districts, counties and townships where a high amount of tax-exempt land has depleted the tax base.