Our View: Bill offers new way to fund projects

Statesman staffJanuary 19, 2014 

What if there was a way for cities and counties to have a “layaway” option when it comes to funding projects?

If Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, gets enough support for a bill he is preparing to present to the Legislature this session, that could happen. Imagine that, a pay-as-you-go financing arrangement through a form of a local-option sales tax: Bring the project to the voters, get it passed, collect the money and then build it.

We say bring it on. We love the idea of making debt-free — notice we didn’t say tax-free — progress a habit. If only the Legislature can open its ears and seriously consider it.

That might be a stretch, because the idea of a local-option sales tax in Idaho has faced lots of opposition. That could be because the traditional way a local-option deal would work is for a government entity to use, for example, a half-cent sales tax to pay off bonds or other debt. And for that to happen, most Idaho legislators seem to want to require certain “sidebars” — demanding that such a measure would have to pass with a two-thirds majority, like a bond.

As the city of Boise learned during its ill-fated Public Safety and Open Space/Parks bond campaign in November, 66.6 percent of the vote is a high, high bar. We don’t think the two-thirds test should apply for projects that don’t create debt. School levies require only a majority vote, so why shouldn’t a local-option proposal? Especially since Winder’s idea, which is not unlike what is going on in places such as Oklahoma City, wouldn’t allow debt.

It would simply be a way for a city or a county (or a combination of entities) to bank local-option sales tax revenue (within a sunset date) until they had enough to pay for a project, or perhaps an agreed-upon phase of an initiative.

Communities wouldn’t need such a tax if they could just sock the money away over time, as has been the case in Meridian. But you know, and we know, that is tough sledding in this economy.

We understand why Tom Luna, superintendent of public instruction, wants to have a so-called Internet tax and tap revenue from it to fund education. It is because the state of Idaho, like all states, has limited funding and unlimited demands on it.

So why not allow communities to tax themselves until they have enough money to complete a project? If people have the discernment to elect legislators, what makes those same lawmakers think they won’t be able to discern whether to agree to a local- option tax to fund a new road or transit initiative?

Idaho sales tax is 6 percent. Winder’s plan would allow up to an additional 1 percent maximum for the local-option tax in a given county. That would mean that, at no given time, could a project or projects exceed 1 percent. If Ada County had a 10-year, .5 percent project and the city of Boise had a 10-year, .5 percent project, they could both be approved. But if both jurisdictions went for 1 percent for a project, only the entity that got it planned and voter-approved first would be allowed to proceed.

We have received positive response from Treasure Valley business and banking leaders. Though there is bi-partisan support — Winder has courted his own GOP caucus and Democratic colleagues — we don’t know how deep the support goes on either side of the aisle.

Voters will get their say if Winder’s version of local option is approved, with projects identified and placed on the ballot.

We only hope they get the chance to cast their vote someday.

“Our View” is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board. To comment on an editorial or suggest a topic, email editorial@idahostatesman.com.

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