Mr. Butts goes to Washington on a regular basis. He lobbies Congress to keep funding two federal programs vital to Custer County’s economy, schools and roads: payments in lieu of taxes and the secure rural schools program which compensate rural counties and school districts for tax revenue lost due to large tracts of tax-exempt federal land inside their borders.
Wayne Butts, chairman of the Custer County Commission, also lobbies for the two organizations that pay his travel expenses: the Idaho Association of Counties and the Western Interstate Region of the National Association of Counties.
Butts will have made three trips to the nation’s capital by the end of this year, in addition to one to the National Association of Counties’ annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, and numerous Idaho Association of Counties meetings. He’s racking up the frequent flyer miles, and none of it is on the county’s dime. Butts’ travel expenses are paid by either the national or Idaho counties association.
Before Butts took on the efforts to promote Custer County at a federal level, those tasks were handled by former Custer County Commissioner Lin Hintze of Mackay. Hintze lobbied for full funding of PILT and to make the funding formula more fair to rural counties which tend to be shortchanged because PILT payments are calculated with a formula that takes both population and land area into account. Custer County ends up getting about 25 cents an acre while Ada County gets about $2.40 an acre, Butts said.
Hintze lobbied Congress for years to make SRS payments permanent instead of subject to annual approval. In some years funding has been withheld.
“Lin Hintze always said, ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,’” Butts said.
It takes repeated trips to Washington to make contacts with members of Congress, administration officials, agency heads and others to get anything accomplished, Butts said. The wheels of the federal government spin slowly and sometimes kick into reverse without constant lobbying.
This year, Butts succeeded in getting a resolution passed by the state and national county organizations that urges Congress to pass legislation requiring private groups like conservation organizations to pay an annual fee in lieu of taxes to counties in which they have purchased property and donated it to the federal government for conservation purposes. Such property is taken off county tax rolls and reduces market values and tax revenue. Butts’ resolution calls for the annual fee to be based on the amount of property taxes paid on the land at the time it was taken off the tax rolls.
Not one Idaho county commissioner opposed Butts’ resolution.
The next step is getting a member of Idaho’s congressional delegation to sponsor the resolution as a bill. Butts plans to ask newly elected Rep. Russ Fulcher. Although Idaho Rep. Terry Gestrin carried Butts’ resolution in the Idaho House natural resources committee this year, it failed because the committee’s chairman opposed it, arguing the proposal could violate private property rights.
“If someone sells private property to the government, Custer County should get some fee in lieu of property taxes or have the taxes paid for in perpetuity,” Butts said.
There are other resolutions that have gone nowhere. In 1999 the National Association of Counties supported legislation to limit the federal government’s ownership of land to existing holdings. For every acre of private land in a county that becomes federal land, the feds would have had to sell other public lands of comparable value to private interests to preserve that county’s tax base. Butts may rewrite his resolution to include that, he said.
On another subject, Butts is lobbying the Trump administration in favor of the concept that federal agencies such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management must coordinate with local governments on land management projects or policies that could adversely affect local economies while they are still in the beginning stages. That way, county commissioners and city council members can give input and hopefully get the agency to reconsider changes that could hurt the economy before releasing proposals to the public.
Butts traveled to Washington earlier this year with Margaret Byfield, executive director of American Stewards of Liberty. The commissioners hired her as a consultant to help educate federal officials about coordination. Byfield has helped local governments develop natural resource plans and specific policies to make it easier for counties and municipalities to coordinate local needs and priorities with federal and state agencies.
Hintze found a provision in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 mandating federal-local government coordination. Coordination is more robust than cooperation because it gives local governments a seat at the planning table.
Working more effectively with the Forest Service and BLM has been an issue that has frustrated the Custer County commissioners for decades. Since Butts was elected 15 years ago, he has seen a great deal of turnover in forest supervisors and rangers on the Salmon-Challis and Sawtooth national forests. Through the years the commissioners have started over many times with agency newcomers in solving problems related to forest roads, endangered species, mining, ranching and logging. There’s been far less turnover with BLM managers, so coordination there has been easier, Butts said.