Fact check: How Jordan, Little would handle taxes, spend Idaho’s money

From left: Republican Brad Little, moderator Jasper LiCalzi and Democrat Paulette Jordan shake hands after a gubernatorial forum Oct. 2, 2018, at The College of Idaho’s Langroise Center for Performing and Fine Arts in Caldwell.
From left: Republican Brad Little, moderator Jasper LiCalzi and Democrat Paulette Jordan shake hands after a gubernatorial forum Oct. 2, 2018, at The College of Idaho’s Langroise Center for Performing and Fine Arts in Caldwell. kjones@idahostatesman.com

Note: This report has been updated with additional information on the costs of marijuana enforcement.

Gubernatorial candidates Lt. Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, and former state Rep. Paulette Jordan, a Democrat, each tossed out a number of facts and figures during their Tuesday forum on fiscal policy at The College of Idaho.

Here’s a look at how some of the candidates’ claims hold up:

Brad Little

Little: “We spend 65 percent of our available general fund on education, about 50 percent of it on K-12. ... Today, no state has made a bigger investment in K-12 than the state of Idaho. We are leading the nation in the increase.”

What we found: Little is roughly correct on the amount of Idaho’s budget devoted to schools. For the current fiscal year, the Legislature appropriated $2.3 billion toward education, 62.8 percent of general fund spending. Of that amount, $1.8 billion or 48.2 percent went to K-12.

The most current National Association of Budget Officers report found that from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2017, Idaho ranked sixth in the nation for year-to-year increase in state spending for K-12 education.

Little: “Today, Idaho leads the nation in increase in teacher pay, more than any other state in the union.”

What we found: An April 28 National Education Association report found Idaho’s average teacher salary from 2017 to 2018 grew by 3.6 percent, the highest in the nation by percentage. Idaho is in the fourth year of an effort to grow salaries; the report said Idaho salaries grew by 9 percent from 2009-18, lower than many other states.

Little: “Today the income tax rate in Idaho is the lowest it has been since 1936.”

What we found: Little is only off by two years. The current income tax rates range from 1.125 percent to 6.925 percent. They’re the lowest since 1934, when the rates ranged from 1.0 percent to 6.0 percent, according to the Idaho State Tax Commission.

Little: “We lead the nation in job growth. We lead the nation in income growth.”

What we found: Little again used percentage growth, not raw numbers, to make his claims. Idaho’s job growth last year was 3.3 percent, the highest in the nation by percentage that year. Idaho’s 4 percent job growth in 2016 also led other states when viewed this way, according to the Idaho Department of Labor.

Idaho’s personal income in 2017 grew 4.7 percent, almost tied with the nation’s highest rate, 4.8 percent in Washington state, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. But, per capita personal income in Idaho is lower than in the rest of the nation. In 2017, Idaho’s per capita income of $40,507 ranked 44th.

Little: “We used to have the most affordable health care of any state in the union, and that has not been the case since the Affordable Care Act passed.”

What we found: The ACA applied equally to all states, and Idaho hasn’t faced any unusual provisions when compared to its peers. There are many ways to measure health care costs, and it’s unclear if Little meant insurance premiums or actual medical prices.

Premiums were already rising before 2014. Most of their growth, both before and after the ACA, is the result of higher prices at hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and health care providers. The ACA did require insurers to pay for things they wouldn’t before, which added to the increase — but patients didn’t get stuck with as many surprise bills.

The Kaiser Family Foundation still ranks Idaho as one of the top five cheapest states in the nation for health insurance through your employer — how most Idahoans get their insurance. And, the ACA created a federal subsidy to help cover premiums for plans sold on the state health insurance exchange. It’s entirely possible now, through the exchange, to pay nothing for health insurance in Idaho.

What has changed? Idaho employers are paying a larger share of their employees’ premiums, likely due to competition for good workers in a tight labor marker. And Idaho’s decision not to enact one part of the ACA — Medicaid expansion — has left insured Idahoans and local and state governments paying for uninsured patients, often at great expense.

Paulette Jordan

Jordan: “We are 50th in teacher pay.”

What we found: According to the same NEA report from April, 10 states had a lower average teacher salary this year than Idaho’s: $49,225.

Jordan: (On how to increase state revenues) “… Off-ramping those who are on exemptions. We have a lot of corporations and special interest groups who are exempted in the state of Idaho. This is where I want to make sure that we take a hard look at what is necessary and what is not necessary. ... We have to create a more fair and balanced system in this regard. We have a lot on our hands because these exemptions have rolled up to over $2 billion a year.”

What we found: Jordan is citing from a 2015 Idaho Center for Tax Policy report that found “Idaho has 136 tax expenditures [breaks] on the books for sales tax, corporate income tax and individual income tax. These 136 expenditures represent almost $2.4 billion.” The state’s 2019 fiscal year revenue report estimates that the current 131 tax exemptions, credits, exclusions and deductions — again including all taxpayers, not just businesses — now total $2.9 billion. But it contains a caveat: Due to several factors, including how ending the deductions or credits may change taxpayer behavior, the report “is an estimate of how much tax payment is being avoided by the beneficiaries of the tax expenditure. It is not an estimate of the revenue that would be raised by eliminating the tax expenditure.”

Jordan: “Idaho is one of two states in the country that has not followed this national plan for a self-insured health insurance plan, which is unfortunate because if we had followed it we would have saved up to 20 to 30 percent, which is about $100-plus million a year to taxpayers.”

What we found: A state analysis conducted by Mercer in 2017 found Idaho could save $13 million in the first year by switching state employees to a self-insurance fund. A 2016 Milliman report found Idaho could save $60 million over three years by making the switch. Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Tommy Ahlquist cited the Milliman report last year while pledging to cut $100 million from the state’s budget in his first 100 days if he won.

Jordan: (On how to reduce state spending) “I am looking at our utilities. What it comes down to, how much we pay restructuring dams. We have high utility rates here in our state ... which have cost taxpayers roughly $700 million, which is really unfortunate because I would like to save that money and reinvest that back into the state of Idaho. Fish mitigation, which the state of Idaho continues to expend taxpayer resources on because of these four Snake River dams.”

What we found: The state of Idaho does spend money on fish hatcheries and mitigation programs. But Jordan’s staff confirmed the main figure here referred to spending by the federal Bonneville Power Administration, particularly when it comes to four dams on the Lower Snake that fish advocates say must be breached to recover threatened salmon and steelhead. The agency’s fish and wildlife program is often quoted to cost about $700 million a year, though that has recently declined. As Jordan’s staff notes, Idaho residents and BPA customers do pay for the program through federal taxes and BPA electric rates — but the money doesn’t come specifically out of Idaho’s state budget. Jordan’s staff believes the state would see an economic boost if the four dams were removed, citing sources including a Statesman editorial from 1997.

Idaho has long had low utility rates due to its plentiful hydropower — here are Idaho Power comparisons of residential and business rates across the country. BPA rates have risen due to the fish and wildlife mitigation and because the agency can’t sell its surplus power as easily as it used to, but even it remains competitive nationally.

Jordan: “We would save money ... by one, not arresting folks for marijuana or cannabis use. We need to work to decriminalize cannabis in this state. By doing so we would save $23 million in arrests alone.”

What we found: Though initially unclear, Jordan’s staff now confirms she was citing a July 2018 Cato Institute report that found Idaho’s state and local agencies spent $23.2 million in 2016 enforcing marijuana laws.

Others have studied the issue as well. The ACLU estimated Idaho spent $11.9 million “enforcing marijuana possession laws” in 2010, according to a report the organization released in 2013. Since then, more states around Idaho have legalized the drug in various ways, and marijuana arrests and seizures by Idaho law enforcement have grown in recent years.

A Harvard study from 2008 suggested marijuana decriminalization would save Massachusetts law enforcement $29.5 million. Voters that year chose to do so for small amounts. Arrest rates dropped significantly, according to the ACLU, and the group estimated that in 2010, the state spent $9.3 million on marijuana enforcement.

Audrey Dutton contributed.