Friday, March 11, 2011

Legislator backs out of levy discussion

Ken Roberts cancels scheduled forum in Hailey

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County School District Superintendent Lonnie Barber discusses the possibility of lost school funding with county residents Bob McCroskey and Sarah Caldwell. A meeting was set for Wednesday night to discuss the merits and consequences of eliminating a permanent levy that gives the district 60 percent of its operating budget, but state Rep. Ken Roberts canceled his appearance late Wednesday afternoon.

Voters hoping to voice their disapproval of a possible elimination of school funding were left in the lurch Wednesday when state Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, unexpectedly canceled a public meeting with school board trustees.

"That's not the way to do business," said Lonnie Barber, superintendent of the Blaine County School District, of Roberts' cancellation. "It was such short notice."

Barber said he had scheduled the meeting two weeks ago, when Roberts agreed to come to Blaine County and discuss his proposed legislation to eliminate the budget stabilization levy.

The levy is permanently included in county property taxes and provides 60 percent of the School District's general operating fund.

Blaine County is one of four school districts statewide that issues the automatic levy, due in part to the relatively small amount of state funding the district receives. If Roberts' legislation is passed, the district will need to go to voters every two years to ask for a renewal of the $29.5 million levy.

Roberts has lobbied in the House to eliminate the provision of Idaho state code that allows the district this permanent levy, contending that voters should have the ability to choose whether to pay the additional tax.

Roberts was set to discuss his perspective on the issue at 6 p.m. on Wednesday at the Community Campus in Hailey. The event was canceled when Barber received an e-mail from Roberts' assistant at 3:30 p.m. that day.

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Citing the "current demands of the Legislature," the e-mail provided no more specific information. Sarah Hendrick, assistant to the majority leadership, said in an interview that Roberts only told her he wouldn't be able to drive to Hailey in time for the meeting. An e-mail from Hendrick to Barber dated March 4 warns that Roberts might be unable to attend the scheduled meeting.

She said Roberts only told her he couldn't make it, and was not specific as to why or whether unanticipated obligations arose. Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said Roberts had a budget meeting Wednesday night.

Barber said he was disappointed that the representative was a no-show.

"Mr. Roberts made a promise to us that he would be happy to give his opinion on this issue," he said. "We're ready, and we wanted to have an informational meeting, a civil meeting where we can talk about the issues."

As for the argument that voters should be able to choose whether to pay the levy, Barber said voters already indirectly weigh in on the issue.

"People vote for the trustees and they are in charge of collecting the levy," Barber said. "There is representation."

Barber said it is unlikely that the discussion would be rescheduled. The levy elimination bill has already passed the House, meaning Roberts cannot withdraw or modify the bill.

"It's already passed through his route," Barber said. "I just wanted people to be able to ask him, 'Why Blaine County?'"

Calls to Roberts for specifics on the cancellation were not returned as of press time.

The bill is set to come before the Senate Local Government and Taxation committee for a hearing, but the date has not yet been determined. Barber said he would be in Boise to testify against the bill.

"We're hopeful that we can go down and convince them that it's not the right thing to do," he said. "It'll be a tough battle, but we just want to make our case known."

Katherine Wutz:

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