Idaho lawmakers hired a Utah firm to appraise federal land in three counties to determine how much tax revenue the land would generate if it were privately owned and subject to real estate taxes.
The Republican Sen. Steve Vick and Republican Rep. Sage Dixon, co-chairs of the Legislative Commission on Federalism, signed the $250,000 deal for the study with Aeon AI last month. The Federalism Committee deals with issues of state sovereignty.
The contract covers federal land in three of Idaho’s 44 counties: Boundary County in northern Idaho, Canyon County in southwestern Idaho, and Clearwater County in northern Idaho.
The deal with Aeon AI requires an initial payment to the company of $20,000, followed by three payments of $35,000 based on meeting specific criteria and a final payment of $125,000.
In return, legislators receive a land valuation, a planning tool, a visualization dashboard and a written report. The timetable in the agreement provides a schedule for the work to be completed this fall.
Aeon AI says on its website that it uses real estate analysis software to provide real-time land valuations.
About 63% of the land in Idaho is federally owned, but local governments cannot collect property taxes on that land. A federal program called PILTor payment in lieu of taxes, aims to reduce the loss of those taxes by giving money to government agencies within the state.
Some Idaho lawmakers have said the state should get more than it has historically received from the federal government and that the results of the Aeon AI assessment could bolster that argument.
The Idaho House and Senate passed a concurrent resolution last year tasked with figuring out how much money the federal public land would generate in real estate taxes if privately owned. Simultaneous resolutions do not require the signature of the governor. The resolution does not say what the committee should do with the information after it has received it.
Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League said he didn’t see much value in the report and said there was a risk it could be used as a club to privatize public lands.
“One of the reasons we’re seeing such growth in the West is the accessibility of these public lands,” he said. “If there is more pressure to sell or privatize public lands, it will negatively impact these growing communities.”
Other public land advocates also spoke out against the deal. Hollie Conde, Idaho’s Legislative and Land Coordinator for Conservation Voters, said in a statement to the Idaho Statesman that the $250,000 deal “is not a workable solution or an effective use of taxpayers’ money.”
“We are disappointed with the Federalism Commission’s decision to contract Aeon AI with valuation services, especially given the company’s ties to known anti-public land attorneys,” said Conde, referring to Aeon AI and former Utah legislator Ken Ivory, who has a history to advocate the transfer of federal lands to state control.
Brian Brooks, director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, told the Idaho Statesman in an emailed statement that he believes there are major flaws in potential plans to demand more PILT funding based on Aeon AI’s assessment.
The PILT payments are made annually by the United States Department of the Interior and its agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management. The payments also cover federal lands managed by the Forest Service and other agencies.
Idaho received $34.5 million in PILT payments last year. President Joe Biden signed a credit bill in March that included full funding for PILT for this year, but payment amounts are not finalized yet.
Payments are calculated based on the number of acres of federal land within each county or jurisdiction and the population of those areas.
“This technology that Aeon AI is now getting funding for does not apply at all to the way PILT is calculated and therefore will not help with PILT funding,” Brooks told the statesman. “A quarter of a million dollars is a hefty price tag for an account that fundamentally cannot achieve what it set out to achieve.”
US lawmakers have at times criticized the PILT program and its payments as inadequate or unreliable, jeopardizing the ability of rural areas to pay for law enforcement, firefighting and other essential services.
Brooks said his organization is working with Idaho’s congressional delegation to try to get more PILT funding for Idaho. But like Oppenheimer, he feared the deal could be a step toward privatizing beloved public lands.
“Ultimately, it’s another government-funded campaign for the anti-public landmass to try to take our American birthright off public lands,” Brooks told the statesman. “Years ago the argument was that their existence was unconstitutional, but they were found wrong.”
“When it comes down to it, 90% of Idahoans use public lands and the vast majority support them, according to the latest Colorado College pollBrooks adds. “Reversing from attacking public lands to helping them manage them would be a better use of time and money.”
Idaho Statesman reporter Nicole Blanchard contributed.
This story was originally published June 17, 2022 10:21 AM.