Guest Opinion: Smart government means putting Idahoans’ needs first

January 19, 2014 

Our Idaho frontier forebears built communities based on shared ethnic, religious or economic ties. They taxed themselves in order to hire schoolteachers and sheriffs and build roads and bridges. Because they adopted “smart” tax policies, Idaho communities prospered and became great places to live and raise a family.

We need to recapture this frontier spirit now.

According to Idaho newspaper articles, Idaho is the second poorest state, with the highest percentage of minimum wage jobs; and our public education ranks 47th. Yet our lawmakers blindly follow the same tax- cutting policies that have been failing us for at least a decade. It would be smarter to roll back the tax cuts of the last few years that went to wealthy people and large businesses, and back-fill the budgets for crucial public services.

Where to start?

• Education: When some school districts pass levies to fund schools, tax revenue shifts from large businesses squarely onto Idaho working families. Is it smart to shift taxes from out of state corporations onto the backs of working Idahoans? Or would it be smarter to collect fair taxes from those companies to help educate Idaho’s children?

• Medicaid expansion: We could accept millions of federal dollars (which is money Idahoans have already paid in) to provide health care for low-income hardworking families. Instead we will spend approximately $70 million of our own tax money to provide emergency health care through the county indigent and state catastrophic health care fund. Is it smart to refuse the Medicaid expansion dollars? Or would it be smarter to accept the funds, save approximately 311 (according to Dr. Kenneth Krell of Idaho Falls) of our neighbors’ lives, and use our own state and county tax revenue to fund other crucial programs that have been cut?

• Transportation: Idaho’s roads and bridges are deteriorating because we have neglected routine maintenance for years. Yet Idaho drivers of passenger cars and pickup trucks pay about 70 cents of every dollar that goes into the state highway fund, even though nearly 700,000 interstate truck drivers cause thousands of times greater wear and tear on our roads and bridges. Is it smart to put off highway maintenance needs to give the trucking industry a pass? Or would it be smarter to raise the registration fees on the trucking companies so we can all have safer roads and bridges?

• Mental health: Our mental health budget has been cut by about a quarter in the last several years. When Idaho lawmakers reduced the Medicaid budget for needy adults by $35 million, we also lost $73 million in federal matching dollars. A recent report showed that we have had an 82 percent increase in mental commitment cases from five years ago. We have seen a rise in the number of suicides, and more violent encounters with the police. Is it smart to cut funding for services for the mentally ill? Or would it be smarter to fund the programs these people need on the front end, so we can avoid the higher financial and social costs of commitment, suicide, and violence on the back end?

Some state lawmakers are already planning tax cuts for 2014. One plan is to take away the meager grocery tax credit from middle income people to pay for yet another tax cut for big business. The grocery tax credit isn’t much, but it’s just about the only one left for regular Idahoans. Is it smart to take it away from hardworking Idahoans? Or would it be smarter to start putting the needs of Idaho people first when it comes to Idaho tax policy?

Donna Yule is the executive director of Idaho Public Employees Association.

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