Recent editorials from Idaho newspapers:

Standing up for you is no longer good politics

Feb. 25

The Lewiston Tribune

If you still require proof that the political DNA of the Idaho Legislature has mutated, consider this: At the moment, lawmakers have more sympathy for the people selling gas than for the poor consumer, farmer and business person who have to purchase it.

Just about every day, somebody in the state picks up the phone and complains to Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office about high fuel prices.

They have good reason.

Idahoans typically pay some of the highest gasoline prices in the country.

And they remember how former Idaho Attorney General Jim Jones made his reputation in the 1980s by successfully pursuing price-fixing charges against eastern Idaho petroleum dealers.

But price-fixing involves a specific set of circumstances. It means two or more competitors have colluded to set the price. For one competitor to merely match the price fluctuations of another is not price-fixing.

So it’s been a long time since any attorney general was able to do anything about it.

That is until now.

Charging you an “exorbitant or excessive price” for necessities such as fuel, food, pharmaceuticals or drinking water is perfectly legal in Idaho — unless an emergency is declared. When Gov. Brad Little issued his COVID-19 pandemic emergency order last year, that activated the state’s ban on price gouging.

Wasden’s office was able to establish that three retailers — Jacksons, Maverik and Stinker Stores — had profited from a collapse in the wholesale market. While what they paid for gas dropped $1.07 a gallon, the retailers passed along only about 35 cents per gallon in savings to the consumer. Because of that, what was typically a 10-cent per gallon margin exploded into a 63-cent-per-gallon margin.

As a result, the three retailers agreed to compensate consumers to the tune of $1.5 million. They admitted no fault, however.

But just as soon as the Legislature convened, the Idaho Petroleum Marketers Association went to work, supporting a measure that would gut the price gouging law. Rather than considering what a retailer paid for his product, the attorney general — and the courts — could weigh only the retail price.

The attorney general’s office has suggested that may boomerang on retailers. Say for instance that in the midst of an earthquake, the wholesale price for gas doubles overnight. That would no longer be a defense against the subsequent evidence of an “exorbitant or excessive” increase. The attorney general or the courts would simply consider the retail price.

More likely than not, however, what little protection Idaho law affords consumers would simply evaporate. How can you prove price gouging without establishing context?

Time was when at least a few members of the Legislature would have played to the galleries on these kinds of issues. It used to be good politics to stand up for ordinary citizens who are being taken advantage of — especially after three companies agreed to pay $1.5 million to make it up to them.

But when the measure reached the Senate floor earlier this month, it passed unanimously.

What happened to all those populist Republicans? Maybe the GOP is so angry with Wasden that they’re willing to clip his wings every time they get the chance.

But Democrats claim to be the party of the public, not the special interests. Why would they — including Moscow’s David Nelson — not stand up for the consumer?

Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General Brett DeLange — Wasden’s veteran chief of the Consumer Protection Division — put the question to the House Commerce Committee: “In the middle of this once-in-a-century pandemic, why would the Legislature want to make it easier for price gouging in the future, should we experience, heaven forbid, a new emergency, a result that would negatively harm our state’s consumers, our farmers and our businesses?”

In response, the committee sent the petroleum marketer’s bill to the House floor for passage.

Here’s the answer to DeLange’s question: Because consumers, farmers and small business owners don’t have lobbyists and don’t make campaign contributions, they’re apparently invisible to the people supposedly representing them in Boise.

Online: The Lewiston Tribune

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Idaho tax cut bill would help the wealthiest, not the Idahoans who need it most

Feb. 24

Idaho Statesman

A proposal in the Idaho Legislature to lower income and sales taxes across the board would mostly benefit the wealthiest Idahoans.

It also would reduce state tax revenues by a quarter-billion dollars per year at a time when the Legislature has starved basic services, such as public education and transportation infrastructure.

Meanwhile, moderate- and low-income families would see negligible benefits. Idahoans who earn less than $100,000 per household are not only the hardest hit from the pandemic, they also would stand to help Idaho’s economy the most.

The bill from Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, would drop the highest personal income tax rate from 6.925% to 6.5% and the sales tax from 6% to 5.3%.

Harris’ bill, House Bill 199, also would eliminate a grocery sales tax credit that all Idaho residents receive.

The net result of these changes would be a negligible to nominal benefit for the bottom 60% of Idaho households and a sizable benefit for the top 1% of households — those making more than $482,000 per year.

The Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy estimates Idaho households with incomes up to $66,000 a year would see an average decrease in their tax liability in the range of $30-$92, depending on their exact circumstances. The top 1% – those with incomes of $482,000 and above – would see a $4,573 tax cut, on average.

The Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy analyzed House Bill 199 which cuts sales, personal income and corporate taxes, showing that the top 1% of Idaho households would benefit the most.

The impact on state tax revenues is anywhere from $240 million to $270 million.

One could make the case against this tax cut scheme on a pure equity and social-justice basis. Giving a low-income wage earner a $30 tax break while giving someone who earns $500,000 another $4,573 just isn’t fa

That kind of argument, we recognize, won’t resonate with some Idaho legislators, particularly those who are always eager to “give back” taxes to Idaho taxpayers.

So we’ll make a different case that this type of targeted tax cut doesn’t benefit Idaho overall. While we don’t oppose “giving back” taxes to Idaho taxpayers, whom we target for tax breaks matters. Returning taxes to moderate- and low-income Idahoans is better for Idaho.

Lower-income workers were the most negatively affected by the coronavirus pandemic. They arguably are suffering the most and are trying to get back on their feet. A $30 tax break isn’t going to do much to get them back on their feet — and Idaho needs them back on their feet.

Imagine how much further a tax break goes for someone making $30,000 a year compared with someone making $500,000 a year. A significant tax cut for a low-income resident could mean the difference between paying rent and homelessness, paying for medication or taking an expensive tax-paid trip to the emergency room, buying groceries or turning to the food bank or food stamps. Targeting a tax cut to lift people out of poverty pays dividends for all of us.

Moderate- and low-income families are more likely to spend that money on such needs as school supplies, a car repair or new shoes for their children. That money gets injected into the economy right away. For someone who already earns $500,000 a year, that $4,573 likely would just be added to the savings account or invested for retirement.

Finally, when you’re talking about cutting state revenues by hundreds of millions of dollars, the people who get most affected by cuts to things like public education, road repairs and Medicaid are low-income Idahoans.

If you’re going to cut $284 million out of the budget, make sure it doesn’t disproportionately harm one segment of the population. In this case, it’s a double whammy for Idaho’s low- and moderate-income families.

If we want to get Idahoans off food stamps, rental assistance programs and Medicaid — programs that are paid by taxpayers — the best way to do so is by providing a tax environment that rewards hard work and allows them to be successful and self-sufficient.

That benefits all Idahoans.

Online: Idaho Statesman

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Lawmakers attack the people’s power again

Feb. 21

Post Register

Lawmakers, led by Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, have once again launched an attack on citizen’s right to control the state’s laws.

Lawmakers have already created a system in which the popular will is more restricted from access to the ballot than in most states. Now they want to crank down harder, paternalistically substituting their judgment for yours.

Contempt for the voice of the people has extended even into the legislative process. When technical issues prevented many Idahoans who wanted to testify against the bill from signing up, Senate State Affairs Committee Chair Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, announced that no more would be allowed to sign up because listening to the people would take too long.

Two years after lawmakers passed a set of restrictions on the ballot initiative, only to run into Gov. Brad Litte’s veto, another bill is currently moving through the Senate. It would require that 6% of registered voters in all 35 legislative districts sign onto an initiative for it to move to a popular vote.

Lawmakers are using the justification that requiring signatures from all districts would ensure rural voices are heard. A cursory glance reveals their argument to be farcical.

Vick’s bill would ensure rural voices are almost never heard.

Imagine residents of rural counties have some policy they want to put in place through a ballot initiative — say, transferring a portion of property tax revenue collected in cities to ensure more uniform school funding in less funded rural areas. If signatures are required in each and every legislative district, the wealthy, urban 17th District representing the Boise Bench would exercise an effective veto over popular consideration of the matter. Even if an overwhelming majority of every other district supported the policy, it would have no shot.

The only effective means of ensuring rural voices are heard would be to do the opposite of what Vick has proposed — lower the threshold. If signatures from only, say, 12 districts were required, a smaller number of rural counties could band together to get their issue on the ballot.

Or, if only 3% of registered voters within districts were required instead of 6%, then it would be easier for a citizens’ group with little funding to gather the necessary signatures with volunteers rather than paid signature gatherers. That would be especially helpful for rural districts, where signature gathering is by nature more difficult because people are more spread out.

Remember, these requirements only affect the filter that removes issues from consideration. No matter what makes it on the ballot, only a policy with majority support will become law. And even then, the Legislature can reverse the law almost immediately if it chooses.

At least part of the motivation behind this bill is the fear that Idahoans might vote to legalize medical or recreational marijuana by ballot initiative.

It is understandable that lawmakers don’t want the legalization of marijuana. But it is intolerable for them to declare that the people should have no choice in the matter.

And thinking these restrictions would prevent legalization from landing on the ballot someday is foolish. Marijuana is now a large, profitable national industry. The marijuana industry can afford to pay an army of signature gatherers to spread out over Clark County and gather the required 6%. These restrictions will primarily target grassroots, poorly funded campaigns — the exact sort of campaigns which the ballot initiative is meant to support.

So if you want rural voices silenced and for only campaigns with wealthy donors to have a shot at the ballot, tell your lawmakers you support Vick’s bill. If you believe what the Idaho Constitution says, that “all power is inherent in the people,” then tell them you oppose it.

Online: Post Register