Governing is filled with wrenching trade-offs and their connection to the priorities of the citizenry. Costly choices with long-ranging consequences for future state revenues piled up at the end of Idaho’s legislative session. These choices make it much harder to fund all of the responsibilities of state government.
From the opening days of the Legislature, talking points referenced a “surplus,” so labeled to legitimize support for tax cuts. But those funds actually represent only more revenues than were expected. In fact, Idaho does not have a “surplus.” Instead, because there are state government constitutional responsibilities not being met, Idaho has a revenue shortfall.
At the 11th hour, with no public hearings, the “sand and gravel” guys got their bill through along with a renewal of their claim to future “surpluses.”
Some new education funds were appropriated, meaning that Idaho is only years and years away from catching up with its state constitutional duty to “maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”
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We ask, does Idaho’s definition of “uniform” cover the reality of four-day school weeks in many rural districts? Does “uniform” cover the reality that the shift of the state’s responsibility to property taxpayers means that students in Challis do not get the same kind of per-pupil funding as students in Wood River?
Meanwhile, the business community has tried for years to raise Idaho’s go-on-to-college and graduation rates. The college student debt load grows as the Legislature fails to adequately fund higher education.
Idaho students pass through schools waiting for their state to adequately invest in their futures. The entire state waits for the long-term economic growth that requires an educated workforce. We all wait. Meanwhile, we eat up the “seed corn” provided by previous public education investments made by earlier far-sighted elected officials.
Back to the other 11th-hour trade-off — the grocery sales tax. Advocates said exempting groceries could help folks who struggle to get by. Others worried about grocers on the borders losing sales to stores in adjacent states. Across the political spectrum there were sound reasons expressed to eliminate this sales tax.
But the cost is too high. We believe that the loss of revenue estimated at nearly $80 million is a bad trade-off for Idaho’s low and middle-income families, who would not be the main beneficiaries of the tax cut but do count on education for future opportunity. That lost revenue, and more, is needed for state funding of public education.
In some future legislative session, when comprehensive sales tax reform reduces enough sales tax exemptions to make elimination of the grocery sales tax at least revenue neutral, then the choice could be more responsible. There are now about 100 different sales tax exemptions, plenty from which to choose.
So, until the state is funding a public education that is truly “uniform and thorough,” the long view tells us that tax cuts must wait.
Judy Edwards, of Coeurd’Alene, is president of League of Women Voters of Idaho and is a retired programmer/systems analyst from Intermountain Gas Co. in Boise.