Randy Nelson learned at a tender age how dicey things get when policymakers fiddle with taxes.
In 1968, the 6-foot-1, 160-pound senior forward at Wausa High was playing in the Nebraska state basketball championship. Before the second-round game could begin, players had to clear the court of pennies tossed by opponents of Gov. Norbert Tiemanns plan to impose the states first sales tax.
Grant High had lots of cowboys, Nelson recalls. They did not like the idea of a sales tax getting started in Nebraska.
Wausa lost the game and Grant went on to win the title. Tiemann, a Wausa native, got his sales tax but was defeated in 1970.
Idaho Gov. Bob Smylie had a similar experience: After enacting Idahos first sales tax, he lost in 1966. Smylies tax is now revered by policymakers and business as a pillar in the three-legged stool of sales, income and property taxes.
Years later, Nelson decided that the best way to engage in tax policy was to play it straight, give people the facts and let the process work. This month he is retiring after 22 years as president of the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho.
Were just trying to hold the whole system together, to keep it balanced, said Nelson, 62. To me, the bottom line is were trying to get jobs and stay competitive so we can grow.
MOST RELIABLE INTEREST GROUP
An Eagle Scout and one of the rare Idahoans who keeps track of out-of-state purchases so he can pay sales tax, Nelsons success is rooted in his credibility.
Randy did a lot of work with tax commission data to make it simple and understandable, said Mike Ferguson, Idahos chief economist from 1984 to 2010 and now the director of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy. He did a great job.
Nelson became known for the handouts that accompanied his legislative testimony and public appearances.
Hes got these charts that I need a magnifying glass to read, but theyre very detailed and very accurate, said Rick Smith, a tax lawyer and Associated Taxpayers board member.
The chart on Nelson? Hes helped keep the three-legged stool virtually unchanged in his tenure. Income taxes account for about 32 percent of state and local revenue; property taxes 33 percent; and sales taxes, fees and other revenues 35 percent.
Lawmakers have ranked the Associated Taxpayers No. 1 for being consistently active and effective at obtaining legislative acceptance of their position since 2007, when College of Idaho political scientist Jasper LiCalzi began his biennial survey.
They trust ATI and Randys a big reason why, LiCalzi said.
He was absolutely factual, said House Revenue and Taxation Committee Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot. It was just the information. You could draw your own conclusions.
Randy skirted that line providing education and information to legislators without stepping over into advocacy, said former Democratic Sen. David Langhorst, now a member of the state tax commission.
A RARE HOP OFF FENCE
Founded in 1946, ATI put Fact Finders on its logo from the start. Funded principally by business, the group now has 180 members, including cities, counties, chambers of commerce, universities and school districts who value the research and Nelsons weekly legislative updates.
The founder, Max Yost, ran the show for 32 years and had oracular status, said Marty Peterson, a former state budget director who now runs the James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy at the University of Idaho.
What Max said was gospel, Peterson said.
Nelson was more guarded about pressing an agenda, said former Senate Republican Leader Bill Roden, who is dean of the lobbying corps at age 83. Randy went further in saying, Well give opinions on legislation, but we dont lobby. That gained him a lot of trust, Roden said.
Still, Nelson made his views clear in defense of the balanced stool. He cautioned against local-option taxation because of the prospect of patchwork policy; was wary of increasing sin taxes, saying that one day meat or milk could be targeted like beer, wine and tobacco; and objected to a constitutional amendment requiring a 60 percent vote by lawmakers to raise taxes.
The latter brought him some flak from members who liked the idea. You take away your ability to manage when you do that, Nelson said. Sometimes you have to make hard decisions.
Nelson picked his spots. I had to be on the fence. Sometimes, Id drop off the fence a little bit, but then Id get back on. Thats only one issue out of all the tax policy issues. We were in agreement on a bunch of others.
STEEP ROAD TO IDAHO
Wausa, Neb., was a farm town of 600. Nelsons dad was a farmer, electrician, plumber and custom butcher. His mom raised four kids and worked as a nurses aide. A grade school teacher of Nelsons had a son who went to forestry school at Utah State University. Nelson, captivated by the mountains on Colorado vacations, earned his USU degree in the same discipline in 1972.
He spent two college summers working in forestry in Idaho, the first in 1970, when he drove his 64 Chevy Impala up the old Whitebird Hill on U.S. 95 at night. I slept on top so I could see what I came up. At first light, Nelson said, Holy cow!
He worked to prepare timber sales on state lands around Priest Lake and the Boise National Forest. After three years in the Army he was an MP who did most of his service at bases in Arizona and Germany he returned to Idaho, first on a forestry job in Cascade.
But a federally funded job came up at the Ada Council of Governments in 1976, the predecessor of COMPASS, the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho.
Hired as a transportation planner, Nelson helped direct Boises growth to the southeast.
I was ready to be somewhere other than a dinky town, he said.
Nelson got a second bachelors in computer information systems at Boise State and became manager of geographic information, developing his love of charts and belief in keeping systems whole.
In 1990, his longtime backpacking and fly-fishing buddy Jeff Youtz recommended him for the ATI job. Said Youtz, now the Legislatures top staffer: Randy brings that small-town sensibility with him professionally and looks out for the little guy in terms of small business and the tax structure.
FISHING WITH A VIEW
Micron lobbyist Mike Reynoldson, a former ATI chairman, jokes that Nelson is too young to retire because he looks like hes 50. But the best ones go out on top, he said.
Nelson, whos gained just 15 pounds since high school, is given to phrases like, gee willikers. He reserves a lone barnyard epithet to describe the state of his garage. His first retirement project is cleaning up the mess and Sheetrocking the walls.
His wife, Melissa, is the executive director of the Idaho Society of CPAs. They borrowed from Melissas retirement fund to buy a modest cabin on Payette Lakes KP Cove in 1987 and put in gobs of sweat equity. The cabins for sale; they now plan to build a fish camp on the salmon- and steelhead-rich Clearwater River at Orofino.
Their son, Tyler, 33, works for the Idaho Department of Lands. Nelson said hell be spending more time with three practically perfect grandchildren.
The Nelsons lot overlooks the Orofino High football field, home of the Maniacs, the politically incorrect mascot inspired by Orofinos state-run psychaitric hospital.
If we do it right, we can build our deck and watch the Maniacs play, Nelson said. So thats our goal.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics