Bush budget could harm Lake Tahoe funds

Staff and wire report

LAS VEGAS - President Bush wants to divert millions of dollars from lucrative federal land sales in the Las Vegas area to offset mounting deficits, according to budget documents and congressional officials.

The 2006 budget the president is due to unveil Monday asks Congress to direct that 70 percent of profits from the land sales to go to the U.S. Treasury. That money now is set aside for schools, water infrastructure, to acquire environmentally sensitive lands in Nevada and to fund environmental improvement projects at Lake Tahoe.

"If it were to go through, it would (affect Tahoe)," said Jack Finn, communications director for Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. "But the nice thing about being a senator is that one senator can hold up a proposal like that and Sen. Ensign is prepared to do that."

Ensign wrote the bill that became the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act, which allows for the federal land sales. In 2003, Ensign and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., amended that bill to allow $300 million generated by it to be delivered to Tahoe over eight years. Tahoe received its first installment of $37.5 million in August.

Nevada's federal lawmakers united against the idea Wednesday, while the federal Bureau of Land Management auctioned 2,643 acres in Las Vegas. The sale brought in more than $602 million.

"Just because it's in the budget doesn't mean it will become law," Ensign said. "Sometimes as senators we can't get things passed, but we can block things from happening."

Ensign said he had already spoken with White House budget director Joshua Bolten and Interior Secretary Gale Norton about his opposition to the proposal.

"He's very proud what this legislation has done and the good it has done for the environment and he's not going to let anything affect that," said Jack Finn, communications director for Ensign.

The Bush budget argues the federal land sales in booming Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, are raising more money than Congress imagined when the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act was adopted in 1998.

"The receipts generated by these land sales have been nearly eight times higher than anyone anticipated, with future revenue projections exceeding $1 billion per year," the budget document said.

Based on White House projections, at least $700 million a year could be deposited in the Treasury rather than spent in Nevada.

The White House has estimated the federal deficit will be $527 billion this year.

Federal land auctions, sales, leases and exchanges in Southern Nevada have generated $1.6 billion since the first auction in November 1999, according to BLM figures.

n Nevada Appeal news service writer Greg Crofton contributed to this report.


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