No bill has even been introduced yet to do away with Idaho's $141 million property tax on companies. But the telecommunications firm, one of the top 10 payers in Idaho, says that it would invest up to $2 million in savings in Idaho's broadband infrastructure - above the company's existing plans - if a repeal drive succeeds, said Ed Lodge, the company's lobbyist in Boise.
This partially symbolic gesture seeks to show lawmakers that predicted economic benefits aren't merely empty promises - and to overcome stiff opposition from counties, cities and public schools.
The Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, of which CenturyLink is a member, argues that repeal would generate $6.19 in income for Idaho residents and businesses for every dollar lost to the state, according to a 2007 study.
"The business community has been consistent in its messaging that any savings would be used for economic development purposes, or put back in the business," Lodge said.
Gov. Butch Otter has made repeal a top priority for the 2013 Legislature. His draft proposal would somehow find $90 million in new general fund revenue - ideally from projected economic growth - by 2020 to offset some of the loss, while shifting the remainder of the burden to local governments. Otter's bill was circulated among legislators and others two weeks ago.
Sour reaction from local entities has been accompanied by criticism from Otter's former chief economist, Mike Ferguson. They all argue that the state can't afford to repeal the tax.
Ferguson, now the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy's director, insists that it would devastate Idaho's 115 school districts because the burden of paying for future supplemental levies would shift to homeowners who pay local - not state - property taxes.
Voters facing higher taxes would be less eager to support them, he said.
"As I hear, businesses want to have an educated workforce that is productive, and I already hear businesses complain they have a difficult time hiring qualified employees," Ferguson said.
Most of the biggest potential beneficiaries of repeal are Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry members. Idaho Power Co., the state's biggest utility, is the biggest taxpayer, at roughly $10 million to $15 million annually, according to state estimates.
Union Pacific Railroad is No. 2 at $5.4 million, while agricultural giant Simplot Industries and semiconductor maker Micron Technology pay some $3.3 million each. The bill for CenturyLink is about $2.9 million.
Three gas-related companies, including Intermountain Gas Co. in Boise, pay about $1 million each.
Micron lobbyist Mike Reynoldson contends that the century-old personal property tax is a relic of a bygone era that saps money from equipment-heavy companies like his, regardless of profitability. He argues that money could otherwise be invested in global competitiveness.
Micron's net loss widened in the last quarter to $275 million, as demand slumped.
"It's not based on how much that manufacturer consumes in services and it's not based on the profitability of that taxpayer," Reynoldson said. "It's based purely on the fact that their business depends on a heavy capital investment."
Jeff Malmen, Idaho Power's top lobbyist, said regulated utilities would pass along savings to industrial, agricultural and residential customers via lower rates.
That would make Idaho more attractive for companies as a place to do business, said Alex LaBeau, IACI executive director.
LaBeau also believes that local governments are exaggerating funding impacts.
Even tax-dependent counties such as Caribou and Power, with big phosphate-processing operations, would lose just 3 percent of total property tax income by 2020 under Otter's proposal, according to IACI's calculations. If necessary, they could make up losses by shifting the burden to homeowners.
Such "cocktail napkin calculations" provoke Association of Counties Executive Director Dan Chadwick's ire. He contends that LaBeau is overstepping his expertise by asserting how local governments can manage resources.
"They have no clue what it's like to manage a county budget," Chadwick said.
So far, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, concedes that local government concerns have resonated among lawmakers.
"They have been pretty effective," Bedke said.
Former Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, was also frank about Otter's proposal.
"It's getting some rough treatment," he said.
The governor isn't giving up, however, with aides working on a revamped plan said to include $130 million in state replacement money.
"Anytime you start talking about changing tax structure, there are folks that are going to be nervous about it," Otter spokesman John Hanian said.