Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Risch's tax plan won't help Blaine schools

Guest opinion by Dr. Jim Lewis

Dr. Jim Lewis is the superintendent of the Blaine County School District.


If one were to listen to interim Idaho Gov. Jim Risch, you might think the upcoming special session of the Legislature was going to be the best thing to happen to Idaho education since pockets were invented for shirts. We would like to point out that if it was so good for Idaho, Idaho's taxpayers, and Idaho's children, why wasn't it capable of passing under close scrutiny during last legislative session? Why did the Idaho School Board's General Assembly vote 9-1 against it at last years conference, and why do the state superintendent of instruction and the Idaho School Administrators Association seem so dead set against the outcome?

First, there is an unwillingness to hear any other proposals besides the one Gov. Risch has authored. The Democrats have one that is much less intrusive and offers real tax relief to those who need it without raising sales taxes, but it will not even be considered.

Secondly, there will be no time for public input or even debate. The governor has said he would not even call the session unless he had all the votes he needed.

Next, we are again putting our children in the same funding arena as prisons and Medicaid to be shuffled to the back of the line each time the budget is balanced for those other two that continue to have no-cut demands.

And last, they are funding a tax break for businesses and wealthy landowners on the backs of the same people we are trying to simply provide housing for here in Blaine County. The working class will be asked to pick up the bulk of the tab again, while big businesses, which need well-educated children for its workforce, gets a windfall.

When you really take a close look at this effort, it appears to be the work of politics as usual. The reason it cannot wait until the regular session is because of the need to assure party positions in the November election and to thwart the statewide teacher's initiative to appear on the ballot asking for a 1 cent raise in sales tax to support education adequately because the Legislature has failed to do so over the last five years.

The only real increase over that five-year period (3 percent) that wasn't funded by local property tax overrides came in this last legislative session. The same Legislature that now says it can be trusted to fund education adequately with all of the financing mechanisms under its control. The same Legislature that is going to ask Idahoans what they think of its action in November after it has already made the decision in August? Yes, a similar Legislature to the ones that were trusted to listen as they were told by citizens what to do with term limits and the last property tax replacement act of 1995?

Both were completely ignored.

Does everyone realize that the local control that has governed schools in this country for more than 100 years is in jeopardy with this tax shift, not to mention the stability of the entire school funding mechanism? Yes, the interim governor has provided a $100 million surplus fund for education but that would have been used up in the first year of the five-year drought of funding we experienced starting in 2000.

The only thing that saved the Legislature from being exposed on its lack of adequate appropriations for education was the property tax escalation that took place during that same time. This state has yet to realize that an economy that is based on high-tech behaves completely differently than one that is based on farming, timber and lumber. One only need to look at Oregon, California, or Washington to see the problems they have with up-and-down swings in their economies. Oregon's educational funding was in a shambles in 2002 after a similar tax shift in the 1990s was heralded as a cure-all by the state's politicians.

The last area that should concern all Idaho citizens is the fact that eliminating school funding through property taxes basically puts a "for sale" sign on Idaho in general. Out-of-state people who are looking to invest in our robust housing and property economy only wish for these circumstances. They can invest, hold, and sell at the most profitable time with very little tax expense on the ledger. This, in turn, escalates the price of housing and property to the point that taxes aren't the problem for the average Idaho family. The price of the house prohibits them from ownership altogether.

It is that same house value escalation that has priced the infrastructure worker out of our market here in Blaine County and we have one of the lowest property tax rates in the state. It seems odd that lobbyists and special-interest groups have been able to negotiate more than 100 exemptions to the sales tax laws, but we don't have the time to complete the same task for a group of people who cannot afford to buy homes, or might even lose the homes they already own.

Yes, we have lobbied hard to save Blaine County schools and to get whatever tax break we can for our taxpayers. We have asked for, and have received in the governor's legislation, a hold harmless clause that would stabilize our funding where it is, which is better than the bill presented during the last legislative session.

Any new funding for our district would require a vote by our taxpayers for an override. In the past Blaine County citizens have responded favorably to this method but our concern is the same as the rest of the state. As more and more property is purchased by out-of-state landowners who may not care about the quality of our schools, the vote to support the needed funds to keep our children well educated may be lacking.

Wouldn't it be much more prudent for the whole state if the governor would use the time between now and the regular legislative session to invite stakeholders from all concerned stakeholders in the state (property owners, business, education and legislators) to sit down and create a tax solution that would:

· Not raise sales taxes,

· Would give real property tax relief to those who cannot afford to pay,

· And would not put our children in a future shell game with other priorities that will always get funded while schools are asked to wait as they were over the last recession.

Yours in quality education—the Blaine County School Board and superintendent.

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