Ken Ivory

Ken Ivory

BOISE — A former Utah lawmaker will address members of the Idaho Legislature Thursday on his home state's ongoing efforts to help its rural communities by re-evaluating federal payments in lieu of taxes on public lands.

Ken Ivory, a Republican from West Jordan who served in Utah's House of Representatives until last August, is scheduled to address Idaho's new joint Committee on Federalism at noon.

Ivory is best known for sparking a controversial discussion among leaders of Western states about forcing the federal government to cede public land to state control.

In 2018, Ivory sponsored a bill to re-evaluate the fair market value of PILT payments on Utah's 35 million acres of federal lands, hoping to convince the federal government to update payments he said have fallen behind. His bill passed overwhelmingly and was signed by the governor that March.

The PILT program offers a flat appropriation to help counties containing a large percentage of public lands offset lost revenue potential. 

"I see it as a way on a broader basis to help all of the Western states," Ivory said, explaining most Western states receive PILT.

Ivory left the Legislature to work for Aeon AI, which is  the company that's now tasked with making those updated PILT calculations on Utah's behalf. Ivory said Aeon AI, which specializes in conducting valuations of massive acreages of land, should have results ready for Utah within "a matter of months."

"I'm simply providing information on what we're doing for Utah, and if (Idaho) wants to go in that direction we would be happy to help," Ivory said. 

Ivory said the Utah Legislature commissioned his company to make a pilot analysis for Washington County, Utah, which is home to St. George. The county currently receives about $3.1 million in annual PILT payments for its 3 million acres of federally controlled land. Ivory said his company's analysis concluded just 1 percent of federal land that is adjacent to taxable land in the county would have a taxable value of between $100 million and $300 million. 

Ivory said the data will allow Utah to run "any number of evaluations and scenarios in real time" including "what production of a healthy forest would be versus a forest shut down for whatever reason."

"(PILT) was intended to be a tax equivalency with property tax," Ivory said. "We think this is the opportunity for kind of a new era in fairness for the communities. As long as the federal government holds that land, they should do what they promised to do to pay a fair property tax replacement."

Craig Gehrke, Idaho director of the Wilderness Society, said his organization supports PILT and agrees it may be useful to start a conversation about updating the payments. He acknowledged PILT is "usually poorly funded."

"PILT is a question of fairness. Counties can't issue property taxes on that land," Gehrke said. "There are more demands on county governments and county services. That's why I wonder if the (PILT) formula hasn't kept up with the needs anymore." 

His organization also supports efforts by sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to renew Secure Rural Schools Act funding, offsetting lost revenue to counties where timber harvests have declined. 

But he disagrees with any assertion that having federal public lands is somehow a detriment to states. He emphasized they support multiple uses, and the recreational opportunities associated with public lands enhance tourism and quality of life. Public lands also draw new residents to rural counties, he said.

"If counties are hurting, let's have that discussion, but let's quit treating public lands like they're a burden on the state and remember they're what makes Idaho unique," Gehrke said.

Jonathan Oppenheimer, external relations director with Idaho Conservation League, isn't convinced counties are dramatically underfunded through PILT. In his view, the more pressing need is to address the uncertainty surrounding PILT and Secure Rural Schools funding, which can be a "political football," and to guarantee the payments. 

If Idaho does decide a PILT review is in order, Oppenheimer advises the state against contracting with Aeon AI. Oppenheimer said he'd rather see such an analysis conducted by a neutral public entity such as the Idaho State Tax Commission, the Legislative Services Office or the General Accounting Office. 

Ivory said his company would merely be a "tool" for the state in analyzing massive amounts of data, and the state would control the assumptions and outputs.

"These lands have a lot of value to the state beyond what they would mean in potential tax revenue," Oppenheimer said. "Idahoans love their public lands and want to see that access maintained."