Stewart sponsors bill making it easier for rural counties to get federal grants

ST. GEORGE — Rural counties in Utah and across the United States could gain easier access to federal grants under a bill co-sponsored by Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart.

Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart speaking to St. George News while visiting St. George, Utah, Oct. 21, 2020 | Photo by St. George News

Introduced last week, the “More Opportunities for Rural Economies (MORE) Grants Package” would enable rural counties — where over 50% of the land is owned by the federal government and the population is under 100,000 — easier access to grants related to infrastructure and economic development.

The bill is sponsored by Democrat and Republican representatives and senators, which includes Stewart, as well as Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada, and Steve Daines, R-Montana. A version of the rural grants bill has been introduced in the House and Senate.

The federal government manages roughly 28% of the 2.27 billion acres of land across the country, the majority of which is found in western states, according to a press release from Stewart’s office. Federal land makes up the majority of land in most of Utah’s rural counties.

“Too many counties in Utah and throughout the West face education, infrastructure, and housing shortages due to the amount of untaxable federally controlled land,” Stewart said in the release. “By providing technical assistance in obtaining grants and lowering the cost-share requirement, these two bills will help ease the burden for rural counties with low populations.”

A sizable part of a county’s budget can come through land use and property taxes, which also goes to fund public education. However, counties cannot collect taxes on public lands. The less land available to tax, the less money a county has to fund its public infrastructure and service needs. Instead, the counties are given PILT, or Payment in Lieu of Taxes, by the federal government. These funds tend to be below the amount a county would otherwise get through regular tax collection.

BLM sign along Interstate 15. Bunkerville, Nev., April 3, 2014 | Photo by Dave Amodt, St. George News

County’s where half or more of the land is federally-managed and have lower populations can struggle when it comes to funding needed infrastructure and public services. Federal grants are available, yet can be hard to obtain due to fund-matching requirements and other reasons, according to Stewart’s office.

An example of Southern Utah county that could more easily apply for grants under the proposed legislation is Garfield County. The county sports a population of 5,000 people and is 93% public land.

“With limited ability to generate tax revenue, many communities are left without the resources to leverage federal investments in infrastructure that supports our Nevada schools, small businesses and health care facilities,” Daines said in the press release.

The bill is supported by the National Association of Counties, which Matthew Chase, the group’s executive director, said will help expand much-needed investments in rural communities.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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