- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Bush administration is trying to get its hands on millions of dollars generated from sales of federally owned land in Nevada in order to help pay down the deficit.

As part of the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act, which passed in 1998, Congress agreed to sell 13 million acres of land in Nevada. The key backers of thelaw — Nevada Sens. John Ensign, a Republican, and Harry Reid, a Democrat — estimated the sales would provide $350 million to improve federal landholdings, preserve endangered species, fund state education and encourage construction of affordable housing for low-income residents.

But a real estate boom in the growing city of Las Vegas has helped the Bureau of Land Management, which is in charge of auctioning the land, bring in nearly $3 billion.

“It’s like the Nevada delegation pulled a lever on the slot machine, and the coins keep dumping out,” a Republican Senate staffer said. “The Nevada delegation has hit the jackpot.”

Money generated from the land sales has been used in Clark County — which includes Las Vegas — to help pay for a $52 million public golf course, $25 million in outdoor toilets, a $38 million park and to provide a safe habitat for the endangered Moapa dace, a fish that is a member of the carp family.

The administration now wants some of the money transferred to the Treasury Department to help pay down the federal deficit, which hit a four-year low of $247.7 billion for the budget year that ended in September.

The administration submitted a proposal to Congress earlier this year to modify the act in order to specify who should benefit from the land sales, but that proposal is being ignored, the Republican staffer said.

“We’ve seen a lot of good come out of this, but when the price of property suddenly went up, we were looking at a whole bunch of money,” an Interior Department official said. “And that’s when those who do budgeting for deficit reduction said they needed a cut.”

Nevada’s two senators are against the administration — or anyone else — taking a cut of the money.

Jack Finn, spokesman for Mr. Ensign, said the land act is “one of his proudest accomplishments” and that revenues from the land sales “exceeded our expectations.”

“It’s not just the administration that wants to get their hands on the money. Other senators would like to get their hands on it, but it is Nevada legislation that should remain in Nevada,” Mr. Finn said. “It is landmark legislation and Ensign strongly believes, and is making it clear to the administration, that funds generated should remain in Nevada as intended.”

Jon Summers, a spokesman for Mr. Reid, said the Senate minority leader — who is expected to become majority leader in January, as a result of last week’s elections — also opposes diverting the money out of Nevada.

“Just because the administration, with the help of a Republican rubber-stamp Congress, runs a record debt, doesn’t mean we have to reopen the act,” Mr. Summers said.

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