Better Utah in the News

Utah should seek to develop federal lands near cities, argues a former lawmaker

This article originally appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune. Read it in its entirety here.

Utah officials now have a $700,000 tool that they hope will demonstrate the federal government is paying the state a “minuscule fraction” of what it’s due for its public lands.

On Friday, a tech firm called Geomancer unveiled the software that Utah lawmakers bought to help them understand the value of the land — and possibly lobby for more federal cash.

The Lehi company’s analysis, presented to a panel of state lawmakers, estimates that local governments in Utah could reap more than $530 million in property taxes each year if the state’s federally-controlled land was privately owned. But in 2019, the federal government only provided Utah officials about $40 million in compensation to offset this lost tax revenue.

“It really is an astonishing, astronomical fraction of what the tax equivalent amount is,” said former state Rep. Ken Ivory, who left his public post last year to take an executive level job at Geomancer.

During his presentation, he blamed this federal short-changing for the state’s last-in-the-nation ranking on per-pupil spending and said Utah would have to spend billions just to catch up with the rest of the nation.

As a House representative, Ivory was a strident proponent of putting a price tag on public lands and helped secure state funding for the contract with Geomancer. He maintains that he distanced himself from the state’s dealings with the firm once Geomancer made him a job offer.

However, conservation groups have been skeptical of Ivory’s activity with his new employer.

“This is yet another snake oil remedy from Ken Ivory,” Chris Saeger, director of strategic initiatives at the progressive watchdog group Accountable.US, said Friday. “Ivory pushed Utah to hire this company while he was in office, and even after resigning, Ivory is back trying to put more taxpayer money into his own pockets.”

His former legislative colleagues on Friday showered the company with praise for finishing the software that officials will use to appraise public land and figure out how much tax revenue it could generate if it were developed to varying degrees.

Geomancer representatives paid particular attention to property in and around Utah cities and towns, with Ivory suggesting that the state should target these parcels for privatization.

Chase Thomas, executive director of Alliance for a Better Utah, a progressive-leaning advocacy group, said he’s keeping an eye on the Geomancer project because of Ivory’s involvement. The usefulness of the appraisal software will depend on what state lawmakers do with it, he added.

If they use it as a negotiating tool for more federal compensation for public land, the software could be a net positive, he said.

“If this is going to be the basis for a large public lands lawsuit, or something like that, then I think it’s going to be a lot less useful,” he said Friday.

This article originally appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune. Read it in its entirety here.

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