Robert Ehlert: Local-option tax ideas for Idaho are down, but not out

rehlert@idahostatesman.comSeptember 15, 2013 

Is local-option taxing authority coming to a community near you? Stay tuned because the topic once again is gaining traction — though the tires pulling it might be getting bald.

Granted, this was not the Idaho Legislature dropping everything to push through a measure in support of local option, but the drums were beating for the idea at a breakfast meeting of the Idaho Chamber Alliance on Wednesday in Meridian.

Businesses seem to like the idea and there were plenty of them represented, along with elected officials from Blackfoot to Boise and beyond. They heard a bit on the pros and cons of allowing cities and taxing authorities some autonomy to tax without the present legislative oversight. A few Idaho resort cities enjoy this freedom, but none of the larger metropolitan areas so far.

The four panel speakers commenting on the issue all have expertise and insight because of their taxing committee or leadership roles in either the Idaho Senate or House: Reps. Mike Moyle, R-Star, House majority leader, and Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, House assistant minority leader; and Sens. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, Local Government and Taxation, and Elliot Werk, D-Boise, Senate assistant minority leader.

Here’s the argument for: the Idaho Legislature seems to espouse local government and home rule on a number of issues, so why not allow local option by taxing authorities? Local option would be good for business and economic development, right?

“People like government they can get their hands around,” said Burgoyne. “Local-option taxation is a right ... a right to decide comes with a right to be wrong.”

If, for instance, Boise raised money with a local option sales tax and that ended up hurting their retail competitiveness, than “shame on us,” he said.

Moyle provided some pushback to the economic development incentive idea, pointing out that local option is another tax and that Treasure Valley consumers already are driving over to Ontario to make purchases and avoid Idaho taxes.

“How can adding a tax help business?” Moyle said. “That doesn’t make sense.”

The Star farmer added that local communities already benefit from the alcohol tax, property tax, sales tax and other revenue sources. Maybe the problem, he said, is where and how quickly and responsibly they spend the money.

That said, Burgoyne believes there is a sweet spot of compromise on local option and he is ready to try again. He talked to Moyle about that very thing.

“Never say never,” says Moyle.

Local option is, at best, a longshot in the Legislature and especially with the conservative makeup of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee. The committee did approve a constitutional amendment for local-option taxation four years ago, with several stipulations, but the bill died on the floor.

There’s little reason to give the issue better hope in at a time when everybody agrees that money will be “tight.” But, as shown on Wednesday, discussions are far from over.

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman’s editorial page editor. Contact him at 377-6219, or on Twitter @IDS_HelloIdaho.

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