This plan taxes the rich to fund education. Here’s why that wades into dangerous territory

Call it the “Robin Hood” initiative.

Reclaim Idaho, the folks who brought you the successful Medicaid expansion initiative last year, has launched an effort to put another initiative on the ballot, this time a plan to increase funding for education by increasing income taxes on the wealthy and raising the corporate tax rate to 8%.

Reclaim Idaho estimates that the proposal, if passed, would raise $170 million for K-12 public schools.

The proposal, which organizers have dubbed “Invest in Idaho,” calls for increasing the tax rate by three points for individuals who make more than $250,000 annually and married couples who make more than $500,000. It would also restore the corporate tax to the rate that existed from 1987 to 2000.

On its face, the proposal seems to make sense. After all, when we’re talking about needing to increase education funding, that money has to come from somewhere. It would stand to reason that those who have more money would be the best place to start.

As it currently stands, we have a funding mechanism of supplemental levies that help pay for education but add $200 million to local property taxes in Idaho.

However, the initiative is fraught with problems.

We are leery of voters dictating the tax code. The proposed changes may seem simple enough, but tax code policy and their unintended repercussions are nothing to trifle with.

Setting tax code is more involved than simply picking an arbitrary number on a scale and saying, “That sounds about right.” It requires much more analysis on the impacts and consequences, good or bad. We are not seeing that with this initiative.

Like it or not, this really is a job best left to the Legislature and the tax experts in state government. Getting the general public involved in setting tax policy is troublesome.

We are also concerned about the ambiguity of the budgeting process that would have to be involved. How would the state calculate exactly how much is coming in from the initiative and then earmark that money for education? This isn’t exactly how the budget process works. Budget writers wouldn’t be able to simply set the budget and then just “tack on” $170 million to the education budget.

Once the money is turned over to K-12 education, how would that money be spent? Would it just go into the overall pot? Would it necessarily alleviate the need for local school districts to ask for supplemental levies? What if, for example, the added money went into a statewide plan to install security measures in all the schools? That would do nothing to increase teacher salaries, buy new textbooks, replace tablets or pay for bus drivers or school lunches.

There’s no doubt we need to increase K-12 education funding (and we’d also argue that we need to increase higher education funding), so we applaud Reclaim Idaho’s efforts to call attention to this issue. But this isn’t the right way to do it.

Lay this initiative proposal at the doorstep of the state Legislature. It’s yet another example of state legislators not adequately addressing an issue that residents continue to raise year after year. Legislators refused for years to address Medicaid expansion, so the voters took measures into their own hands and passed Medicaid expansion through initiative.

Voters have been complaining for years about education funding. True, legislators have increased education funding as we’ve come out of the recession, but Idaho education funding is still at prerecession levels, with a heck of a lot more students in the system. It’s inadequate. And with some school districts relying on supplemental levies and some not, some districts on four-day weeks and some not, some districts able to attract veteran teachers better than other districts, it’s becoming all too clear that the Idaho Legislature is not living up to its constitutional mandate “to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”

This initiative should be a clarion call to the Legislature to adequately address K-12 education funding, lest the voters swoop in and muck up the works.

Statesman editorials are the unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board.
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