Idaho Politics

How one Idaho senator may derail bill to force citizen vote on Boise’s stadium, and why

A controversial bill at the center of debate over the use of urban renewal funds for a new stadium in Boise may never make it to an Idaho Senate vote.

The chairman of the Senate committee to which the House bill was assigned confirmed to the Idaho Statesman on Wednesday that he plans to sit on the bill for now. Committee chairs have the authority to “hold” a bill, or deny it a hearing. If a bill is held through the end of the session, it dies.

The bill easily passed the Idaho House on Monday, 59-11. But Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, the chairman of the Local Government and Taxation Committee, said he didn’t think it was ready to move forward.

“We need to have a lot more discussion on it,” Rice told the Statesman in a phone interview. “It’s not in a condition right now that I feel comfortable moving forward with it.”

Boise is looking to use urban renewal money — most of which comes from property taxes — to help finance a new stadium and for parking to accompany a new main library. The stadium is estimated to cost about $50 million, with plans calling for most of its cost to be paid back in lease payments to the city and increased property-tax collections resulting from new commercial and residential development expected nearby. After the projections for the library rose to more than $100 million, city leaders said the spending would stay between $80 million and $85 million.

Urban renewal funds work like this: A city establishes an urban renewal district. Under Idaho law, it can last up to 20 years, during which existing taxing districts, such as schools, cities and counties, continue to collect whatever taxes they collected when the district was formed, but no more. Any new property-tax revenue — the so-called tax increment — resulting from new development or higher property values goes to the district to be spent on public improvements to foster new development.

Rice said the House bill is not narrowly tailored enough and touches upon an issue that lawmakers addressed a few years ago. The Legislature in 2016 revised Idaho’s urban-renewal law to prohibit cities from spending their urban renewal districts’ money on municipal buildings.

As it stands right now, the bill would require 55 percent of voters to approve any public projects that use any urban renewal money, no matter how little. Current law on such projects requires approval from 60 percent of voters if 51 percent or more of the funding for the project comes from urban renewal money.

Rice said he is talking to people about how to reach a consensus that would make it possible to bring forth the bill, including people from various industries as well as players from local governments. The House bill’s opponents outside the Legislature include Boise Mayor David Bieter, who wants the stadium, and the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s important to remember that in the Legislature, we do puzzles, not crusades,” Rice said. “This will affect the whole state, not just Boise. The lens has to be on creating the right policy for the state as a whole.”

Bieter expressed frustration Monday when the House passed the bill.

“You learn to work with it, and then they change [the urban renewal laws] again,” he told the Statesman. “It’s definitely a disruption to business. It’s hard to do business in context where you don’t know what will change.”

Backers of the bill say voters should have the chance to weigh in on the projects.

“Ultimately, I think the voter ought to have a say, not a group of unelected individuals spending my property tax dollars,” said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, during legislative debate Monday. Moyle cosponsored the bill..

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Hayley covers local government for the Idaho Statesman with a primary focus on Boise. Previously, she worked for the Salisbury Daily Times, the Hartford Courant, the Denver Post and McClatchy’s D.C. bureau. Hayley graduated from Ohio University with degrees in journalism and political science.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.