In February, COMPASS hosted Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett to share his city’s successes and challenges using local option sales tax. Oklahoma City’s story is truly a rags-to-riches tale. Not long ago, it had one of the most depressed economies in the country; now it has one of the nation’s most robust.
Local option sales tax is a means for local citizens to decide whether they want to tax themselves to pay for a specific project to address a local or regional need. If the citizens approve the tax, it is instituted and the project proceeds. If they don’t, no new tax is instituted and the project does not proceed.
Local option sales tax is not allowed in Idaho, except for a few small resort communities. COMPASS — and many others — would like to see that changed. To do that, the Idaho Legislature needs to act to allow communities the right to ask their voters to tax themselves.
In a Legislature that cares deeply about local control, you would think this would be an easy sell. It’s not. I hear many reasons why legislators do not support allowing local option sales tax authority; the most common is “I am against raising taxes.”
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Raising taxes is not popular, but this argument does not hold water. Granting local option tax authority is not raising taxes. It simply allows local governments to ask their citizens whether they want to tax themselves for a specific project. Don’t Idaho citizens deserve the right to be asked about a tax for something that would benefit our communities?
Assuming we do want to give that right to our citizens, what would it look like? Local option sales tax functions differently in different places. People have asked me whether COMPASS is promoting an “Oklahoma City model” of local option sales tax. The answer is no. Others have asked whether Oklahoma City’s experiences are really relevant in Idaho — after all, they have a much larger population. The answer is yes, their experiences are relevant.
We brought Mayor Cornett to the Treasure Valley to learn from what others have done — big and small, successes and challenges. We can use what we learn to create a system that works for Idaho.
Let’s educate ourselves on the many aspects of local option sales tax and encourage our legislators to do the same, so that in 2017 the Legislature can have a meaningful dialogue about the issue and move away from a discussion of whether the authority should be allowed to what an Idaho model could look like.
Don’t let the Treasure Valley fall through the cracks.
Matt Stoll is the executive director of COMPASS, the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho. The COMPASS board of directors supports legislation for general local option sales tax authority.