Gov. Butch Otter says he’s bulldogging the federal government for information on his disaster relief appeal stemming from Idaho’s 2017 winter storms before deciding whether to veto a proposed repeal of the state’s grocery tax.
“I’m making phone calls to find out what is happening to my appeal,” Otter told the Idaho Statesman editorial board Thursday. Otter met with the board to discuss several issues, such as Amazon’s decision to collect Idaho sales tax and his task force on higher education, which is beginning its work on the future of Idaho colleges and universities
Federal officials denied Idaho’s initial request for federal emergency dollars, saying the state’s damage did not meet the threshold for assistance.
Without federal help, Idaho faces millions of dollars in infrastructure repairs that would have to come out of the state’s treasury. And Otter, who spoke out against the grocery tax repeal during the just-ended legislative session over concerns for its $75 million net loss for state tax revenues.
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“I don’t want to get into a situation where I end up a year from now having a (budget) holdback,” Otter said. Holdbacks amount to a midyear budget cut after state departments have planned and made commitments based on the budget. “There is nothing more dysfunctional in any organization,” he said.
Otter said he’s hoping for a better idea of what possible federal assistance might be and what Idaho’s total weather-related damages, estimated so far at $30 million, will be. He has until April 12 to veto the grocery tax repeal bill.
“Undoubtedly it will include some things other than just highways and bridges,” he said. “I don’t know how many wells we’ve got in Gooding, Jerome and maybe even some in Twin Falls County that ended up with toxic material in them, and they were individual family wells in some cases.”
Otter on other issues
Amazon collecting Idaho sales tax is ‘huge’: Amazon’s agreement with Idaho to collect sales tax on internet sales could open the door for other companies to follow suit, Otter said. “I expect you will see a Fortune 500 name or two every once in a while that will come forward on a volunteer basis and say, ‘We are going to start collecting sales tax on internet sales,’ ” he said.
Tax collections from Amazon could be “huge,” Otter said, and the state is trying to determine just how much it will receive. “Unfortunately, we don’t keep at our tax department those kinds of numbers,” he said.
Idahoans are supposed to pay sales tax on online sales, but without companies collecting the tax at the time of purchase, such taxes are voluntarily and rarely paid.
Higher education’s big plans: Otter replicated his public education task force of a few years ago by appointing a higher education group that is just beginning to meet. Otter’s goal: Have the task force develop a five-year plan for colleges and universities.
Otter’s earlier public education task force developed a plan with a $350 million cost attached, and the Legislature has made significant increases in public school funding over the past years, largely to improve teacher salaries.
Otter said he doesn’t know whether the state will have the political will to put significantly more money into higher education.
“We spend so much time talking about the cost, we overlook the value,” Otter said. “In this day and age, when technology and intelligence is needed so much across the board in our workforce, it is going to be easier to establish the value. Will it come at a cost? No question.”