Federal Western Land Deals Keep Money at Home
RENÈE MONTAGNE, host:
In Nevada, seven years of federal land auctions have produced a multi-billion dollar windfall that's encouraged the growth of Las Vegas. Typically, that money would have gone into the federal treasury, but a law allows all the proceeds to stay within the state. Today, a U.S. Senate subcommittee discusses a bill that would expand the program in Nevada, and also bring it to Utah.
NPR's Jeff Brady reports.
JEFF BRADY: The bills are based on a 1998 law called the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act. Insiders refer to the law by its amusing acronym SNPLMA. It directed the Bureau of Land Management to auction thousands of acres on the outskirts of Las Vegas. The sales have brought in nearly $3 billion more than anyone expected. SNPLMA also required that the money be spent locally. That really upsets Janine Blaeloch of the Western Lands Project in Seattle.
Ms. JANINE BLAELOCH (Project Director, Western Lands Project): It's salt in the wound for American taxpayers. Because we're losing public land that's being sold off, we're losing money that's being funneled into supporting sprawl in Las Vegas, but we also are unwittingly supporting really unsustainable development in the middle of the desert.
BRADY: Ten percent of the money from land sales goes directly to the water district in Las Vegas to pay for pipelines and treatment plants. Some of the money is spent to preserve ecologically important areas and upgrading nearby national parks. But a lot of the money goes to things like a $60 million gun club, a $5 million park featuring historic neon signs, and federal camp grounds which are facing cuts in other parts of the country.
Mr. STEVE ELLIS (Vice President for Programs, Taxpayers for Common Sense): Yeah. Well, if you want to go camping, it sounds like southern Nevada is the place to go.
BRADY: Steve Ellis is with Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Mr. ELLIS: Other places you may be not dealing with too nice a facilities, but they're you would almost expect the water fountains to be gilded.
BRADY: Nevada Senator Harry Reid has been one of the most ardent defenders of SNPLMA. He doesn't apologize for its generosity to Nevada. Eighty six percent of the state is federal land. That means local governments can't charge property taxes on it. Reid says the state deserves the money from those land sales.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): Nevada has been heavily impacted by the federal government, but it is still our land. That is it's within the confines of the state of Nevada. And we feel very in tune with the fact that those lands should help the people of the state of Nevada.
BRADY: The Bush administration asked Nevada to give up some of the money to help reduce the federal deficit. Last May, Reid threatened to thwart the nomination of Dirk Kempthorne as secretary of the interior unless the administration backed off. It did.
Sen. REID: They've run-up these huge deficits. They shouldn't be taking Nevada land and I believe stealing Nevada land moneys to pay off these huge debts they have recklessly created.
BRADY: It's unlikely the SNPLMA like bills under consideration today in the Senate will generate as much money as the original one did. Still, Steve Ellis with Taxpayers for Common Sense says the precedent is disturbing. He says it gives counties that can get these bills passed a personal slush fund to finance their growth.
Mr. ELLIS: We're going to create this whole separate system where we're funding projects in the have states rather than also in the have-not states.
BRADY: Ellis says other counties already are lining up to become part of the haves. He says he'd like to think members of Congress will come to their senses sometime soon. But now that Senator Reid is set to become the new majority leader, Ellis is skeptical that will happen.
Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.