Recent editorials from Idaho newspapers:

Idaho lawmakers prefer potholes over pupils

April 1

The Lewiston Tribune

Former Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter was prescient when he warned lawmakers against raiding the source of money for Idaho’s schools to pay for highways.

For proof, look no further than the state’s latest transportation package.

A few years back, Otter promised to veto any transportation bill that dipped into the general fund — the sales and income tax-funded account that pays for public schools, higher education and other state government services. Until then, the people who used Idaho’s roads and bridges paid for them through fuel taxes and registration fees. Otter was correct in his assessment that once lawmakers breached that precedent, they’d never stop.

Unfortunately, Otter did not follow his own advice.

So in exchange for a modest rise in fuel taxes and registration fees, the governor went along with a plan that used one-time surplus toward highways.

But lawmakers didn’t stop with surplus. They eventually snagged a permanent 1 percent share of sales tax revenues for transportation.

It’s about to get worse.

First, Gov. Brad Little has signed into law a measure that shifts $126 million from the general fund surplus into transportation — $40 million for local departments and the rest to the state.

Next, the Legislature is on tap to expand the permanent, annual raiding of that same account.

Idaho lawmakers want to increase that funding to 4½ percent of sales tax proceeds, or $67 million for roads and bridges. About $22.5 million of that will go to local highway districts. The rest will be allocated toward Idaho’s Transportation Expansion and Congestion Mitigation Fund. With that money, the state hopes to bond about $1 billion toward repairing highways and bridges plus doing something to address the congestion brought on by growth.

Never mind that Idaho has raised fuel taxes only twice in 25 years. Apparently hitting consumers at the pump is a political third rail — although only a handful of Idaho lawmakers objected this year when the fuel marketers successfully erased Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s ability to root out price gouging during a declared emergency.

Never mind that a major source of highway revenue goes untapped. For more than a decade, it’s been clear that heavy truck operators are getting a nice break in Idaho. According to the government contractor Battelle, which looked into the situation, heavy trucks pay about 27 percent less than what it costs the state to build longer freeway exit and entrance ramps, higher overpasses, stronger bridges and repair the damage heavy trucks inflict on pavement.

Ordinary drivers are paying about 26 percent more than their share.

In 2017, a second company, Texas-based D’Artagan Consulting, agreed with those findings.

The Legislature called for a system of charging trucks a more equitable fee. But key lawmakers, notably House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, refused to even hear of it.

The gap between Idaho’s resources and its needs — not only highway and bridge repairs but coping with growth-related congestion — is approaching $400 million every year. If user fees are out and a powerful trucking lobby refuses to budge, what remains is the path of least resistance.

Before they recessed to deal with a rising surge of COVID-19 infections among their ranks, lawmakers overwhelming voted to dip deeper into the general fund. Only four House members —Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, Steve Berch, D-Boise, John McCrostie, D-Garden City, and Sally Toone, D-Gooding — voted no.

The measure is headed to the state Senate.

As Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press noted, digging into the general fund isn’t Little’s first choice.

But that ship has sailed.

It’s not as if Idaho schools are flush with money. Even with the state budget in surplus, Idaho spends less per pupil than virtually any other state. Supplemental property tax levies continue to rise to make up for inadequate state support. There’s talk of putting untrained college graduates in schools that can’t afford to compete for qualified teachers.

If it’s this bad now when the state can expect billions in federal stimulus relief dollars, what happens when the federal spigot runs dry? What will the state do when Idaho’s housing bubble bursts, ending the economic boom and with it, the state’s budget surplus?

When lawmakers face an even starker choice between pupils and potholes, what will they pick?

You already know the answer, don’t you?

Online: The Lewiston Tribune


Make buying a gun a hassle

March 31

Idaho Mountain Express

It’s time to make buying a gun enough of a hassle to discourage those who may want to do so in the heat of the moment.

America’s list of unsafe places is piling up along with the bodies of innocent victims. With 10 people killed by a lone shooter at a grocery store in Boulder, Colo., on March 22, Americans can’t even shop for groceries without wondering if they could be next.

It was the second mass murder in a week. The first took place in Atlanta, Ga., on March 16 when one man killed eight people in attacks at three spas.

Mass murder sites in America now include offices, retail and service businesses, schools, outdoor concert venues and theaters. What’s left?

Following both slaughters, friends and family members said they had been concerned about the alleged killers’ states of mind, but could do nothing to prevent them from buying or owning a gun.

America must make buying or owning a gun—any gun—a hassle of at least the order of getting a first-time driver’s license. All new gun owners should be screened for mental fitness and required to pass certified classes in gun handling, gun safety and the role of guns in society.

Just as every American must learn to qualify for a license to drive a car, those who wish to own guns should have to qualify to do so.

That idea is guaranteed to elicit the argument, “You can’t let the government make a list or it could come and get our guns.” That’s ridiculous. Hunters already have hunting licenses and states know who they are. Some states require background checks. Lists already exist.

Guns in the hands of the wrong people are the problem. The alleged killer in Colorado carried a 9mm handgun and an AR-556 “pistol,” which operates like a rifle and looks like a weapon of war. He passed a background check before he purchased the AR-556. It retails for about $900.

Congressional delegations from largely Republican states like Idaho should lead the way on this issue. They haven’t.

Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, and Rep. Mike Simpson have a long history of sitting silently by until the nation’s pain and anguish subside after every mass shooting. Then, when the murders recede into memory, they vote against sensible gun laws.

Crapo, Idaho’s senior senator, doesn’t even support a simple waiting period for the purchase of a firearm, according to his website.

In Idaho, most observers would say that expecting the state’s congressional delegation to back gun restrictions is like expecting fish to fly. However, unless these fish fly, Idaho will forever be part of the problem and bear bloody responsibility for every innocent who perishes.

Surely their lives are worth more than the $900 the Colorado shooter probably paid for his weapon of mass destruction.

Online: Idaho Mountain Express


Remember to thank lawmakers for raising your taxes

March 21

Post Register

When your lawmaker returns from the legislative session, they’re likely to brag about cutting your taxes. Don’t buy it. Ask them why they raised them — because that’s what they’re doing.

The Legislature is pushing through a last-minute income tax cut, which seems likely to pass. What benefit would ordinary people get from it?

A family making $500,000 per year can expect a nearly $2,000 tax break each year. But the median household in Idaho brings home less than $56,000 per year. How much tax relief would this household get? About $90 per year. A few tanks of gas.

Except they probably won’t get to buy that gas because they’re likely to spend that much and more on higher property taxes.

Property taxes are a bit counterintuitive. Local taxing districts set their budgets, and that determines the total amount of tax to be collected. That total tax burden is then divided up among the properties in the district based on how valuable they are, relative to the total value of the property in the district.

Here’s the important point: What matters for your property tax payment is the (1) budget and (2) the relative, not absolute, value of your property. If each property in the district goes up in value by 50% in a year, but the budget stays the same, so does everyone’s property tax bill. So, strictly speaking, rising property values are not to blame for rising tax bills.

But there is one other factor that can cause your property tax to go up, a factor not controlled by local government but by the Legislature. That factor is how the taxable value of each piece of property is determined. The Legislature sets the level of exemptions to that taxable value, and thereby controls how property taxes are distributed across the residential, business and agricultural sectors. Every year since 2016 the Legislature has decided that you, the homeowner, should pay more.

The most generous exemption by far goes to agriculture. Agricultural land is valued through a complex system based on its potential crop yield rather than its market value, with the result that its tax assessment is far lower than it would be if it were assessed at market value.

By fixing the homeowner’s exemption at a nominal dollar value as property values rise, which lawmakers did in 2016, the Legislature is in effect ensuring that every year homeowners are responsible for a larger and larger slice of the total pie, so the slices assigned to businesses and agriculture necessarily shrink.

And that’s why the Legislature’s position on the exemption has been so ludicrous. Whenever raising the homeowners’ exemption is brought up, many in the GOP will say they oppose it because it’s a transfer of tax liability from homeowners to businesses and agriculture. But the Legislature has designed a system in which every year tax that residential property values rise, a portion of tax burden is shifted from business and agriculture onto homeowners.

It’s automatic, so it will occur if the Legislature simply does nothing, and nobody has to take responsibility for it. But every year the Legislature does nothing, it is hiking taxes on homeowners. And this year a proposal to stop this automatic tax hike by Rep. Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa, has been denied a hearing.

So the Legislature’s grand tax plan is to continue raising your property taxes while providing an income tax break that will be negligible for all but the wealthy. The next time your lawmaker says they’re looking out for you, remember that.

Online: Post Register