SALT LAKE CITY — At least two Democrats who served with Republican Ken Ivory don’t think it is fair for people to criticize his move to a company that is receiving state money.
An ardent state rights supporter and constitutional scholar, Ivory resigned from the Utah Legislature effective Monday to take an executive level job at Geomancer, which is under a $700,000 contract with the state’s Federalism Commission. He is also teaching a course on American federalism at Utah Valley University.
Ivory, who announced his departure from his West Jordan state Senate seat last week, inked the initial contract with the Utah County artificial intelligence company for a $25,000 first run at valuing federal lands. But he does not sit on the Federalism Commission that expanded the contract’s scope to look at lands statewide.
Some longtime critics of Ivory, however, said the move smacks of impropriety.
“What a fitting end to Ken Ivory’s grift-filled political career. His final act is to cash in from the public lands opponents he funneled taxpayer money to as a legislator. The people of Utah deserve so much better,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, which bills itself as a nonpartisan conservation organization.
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, was one of three legislators who sat on the selection committee and as a member of the Federalism Commission ultimately approved the expanded contract with Geomancer in June.
He said Ivory did not approach him or try to exert any influence.
“I thought the process was fair. Ken did not get involved,” he said, adding it is important to ask questions over connections that arise like this and that often lawmakers do have conflicts because of their profession.
The initial contract only looked at federal lands in Washington County, which at the time had bipartisan support, including from then-Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, co-sponsor of the resolution urging a look at federal lands valuation.
“If the federal government ever showed the least bit of inclination to give us any money, and even if they didn’t, it would be worth spending (that money) to run the numbers,” Dabakis said Thursday.
Dabakis, however, said it was “ludicrous” for the state to spend $700,000 on the effort.
“There is no reason to spend that kind of money, when we have no indication from the federal government it will matter in the least,” he said.
Dabakis, who was one of Ivory’s fiercest critics on the former GOP legislator’s attempts to wrest control of certain federal lands in the state of Utah, said any questions being raised now over Ivory’s position at the tech firm are not fair.
“I feel like Ken is getting picked on,” he said. “I don’t think it is fair to Ken to make these kind of comments because the state law is so preposterous that there’s almost nothing you can do that is against the law.”
Dabakis charged it is a “dirty little secret in Utah” that there are no consequences to the entanglement of state contracts with politics.
Ivory, for his part, said Wednesday he decided to resign from the Legislature because he landed two “dream jobs,” and it’s been his passion to teach.
He called Geomancer a company that is a “complete generational disruption in data-driven decision-making for land use and land government.”
In zoning and planning, the company can test 100 different scenarios with outcomes that will assist governments, he added.
“It will help complex decision-making on land use that affects communities, sometimes for generations,” he said, with the ability to plug in property tax revenue, sales tax revenue, traffic counts and infrastructure stresses and other variables that would arise should a certain development happen.
The effort to put a value on the nontaxable federal lands in Utah is not only a legitimate effort for both Democrats and Republicans, King says, but something other Western states may follow suit on.
Lawmakers suspect there may be a significant gap between the Payment in Lieu of Taxes money the federal government gives to states and the actual taxable value of the federal land.
“The reality is when you have two-thirds of our lands owned by the federal government, it really restricts our ability to raise money from property taxes in a way that other states don’t even think about,” he said.