Our View: House speaker’s idea deserves serious look

January 24, 2014 

The Bedke “tax shift,” which would reduce Idaho income tax rates and pay for it by ending the $80-per-person grocery tax credit claimed by middle- and high-income Idahoans, is a welcome idea that deserves consideration — and maybe some tweaking this week by the Legislature.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, unveiled the shift concept Tuesday during a luncheon speaking engagement at the Andrus Center in Boise.

Though his proposal did not set the room on fire, we hope Idahoans and the Legislature will realize the principle of the idea — to repurpose a block of money that can benefit the state in the long term. Low income families and the elderly would keep their grocery credit. An estimated $70 million to $80 million would be generated because middle and higher income residents would no longer get the credit, thus allowing Idaho’s tax rate to drop to 6.95 percent from the present 7.4.

To Bedke, and to us, that’s a more attractive sales pitch to potential newcomers and businesses than a grocery-tax incentive. Bedke may have to reconsider some things to make the plan as attractive to someone earning $50,000 as someone earning $100,000, but by no means should he cave to the critics, especially those who will cry, “How will this help education?”

We are on board and on record as agreeing that education is the No. 1 priority for the Legislature this year and thus should get No. 1 funding and consideration to begin implementing Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education recommendations.

We don’t feel this is a mutually exclusive deal or that all newfound or liberated monies have to be funneled to improving education and the compensation for teachers. We see Bedke’s tax shift plan as a piece of a holistic approach to making Idaho better and more competitive. We are focusing on parts of the whole right now, such as education and workforce development, because they are key to preserving and building on an economy that must get out of neutral and begin to thrive.

Even if unlimited funds were available, education reforms are going to take time — time that now will be measured in four-year blocks before we understand whether the new standards and restored financial commitments are having the desired effect.

We don’t think it’s wise in the interim to ignore some of the outward signs of our viability to future citizens and businesses that would consider joining in Idaho’s future successes. A tax rate in the high 6 percent range is going to trump one in the 7.4 range every day. We challenge Bedke’s detractors to find another way to do it if this one is not appealing.

If anybody thinks Idaho is going to move and prosper by standing still or by focusing on just education at the expense of luring economic development, we caution that things don’t work that way.

There are other sources for education funding in Otter’s budget — namely the gigantic “rainy day” accounts. We think the Legislature needs to work with Otter to reconsider the $71 million earmarked for unplanned disasters before we fall into the sinkhole we know will swallow us if we don’t appropriately appropriate money to prepare our children to compete for jobs in the future.

As Bedke and colleagues apply scrutiny and improvements to his bill for the tax shift, we hope for bipartisan support — or even better alternatives.

Idaho is going nowhere without the commitment and courage of people and lawmakers who are willing to develop and try new ideas.

“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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