On this day, von Ehlinger’s handiwork takes center stage

A man walks in front of the canoe art and whirlpool mural on the west side of the Sonoco Products building in downtown Lewiston in early January. Public art projects in Idaho would be subject to more scrutiny under a proposed bill from Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewiston.

BOISE — It was the Aaron von Ehlinger show at the Idaho Legislature on Wednesday morning, as the Lewiston representative had four bills up for consideration in the House and Senate.

Some details and discussions on the measures include:

BOTTOM OF THE PRIORITY LIST — The House Revenue and Taxation Committee took a dim view of Rep. von Ehlinger’s proposal to require a public vote on the use of tax dollars for public art projects.

Nearly half the committee wanted to kill House Bill 311. However, a substitute motion to amend the legislation not only kept it all alive, it kicked the measure out of committee to the House floor.

The bill requires a public hearing before local governments can spend tax dollars on the design, construction, installation or purchase of any public art.

If the total cost of the project is less than $25,000, then a two-thirds vote by the city council, county commissioners or relevant governing body is needed. If the cost is $25,000 or more, a 60 percent public vote is required.

“I love art, I love artists and I have nothing against the art community,” von Ehlinger said. “But when government and hard-earned taxpayer dollars are involved, I think art needs to be at the bottom of the priority list.”

Von Ehlinger noted that cities and counties regularly complain about strapped budgets, saying they can’t afford to give up a dime of property tax revenue.

If that’s the case, he said, “then maybe they need to take a hard look at some of the more frivolous areas where they’re spending taxpayer money. Whether we like it or not, art is not a vital service.”

Von Ehlinger cited several examples of what he considered wasteful public spending, including the “Canoe Wave” sculpture in Lewiston.

“Some people might look at that and think it’s a scene in post-hurricane Louisiana,” he said. “It’s been suggested we should sell it to Clarkston, since it forms a ‘C.’ ”

No one testified in support of HB 311. Eight people testified in opposition, saying the legislation undermines local control and effectively stifles future public art projects. They said public art projects typically go through an extensive review process, with multiple public hearings and often opportunities for online voting.

Rep. Jon Weber, R-Rexburg, a former county commission, said the bill was “heavy handed and an overreach of state government.”

“As legislators, we’re elected to legislate and appropriate,” he said, and the same is true of local government officials.

“I’m sure the people we represent don’t always approve of the way we’re spending their money,” Weber said. “Yet in this situation (with public art), we want to reach down and tell local governments how they can spend money? That’s not right.”

Rep. Linda Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, said public art provides multiple benefits to communities, and to the state.

“Life isn’t complete without art,” she said. “As a common-sense Republican, I like local control and limited government. This (legislation) isn’t limited government. Local communities already ask for community input on projects, and they get online votes. Our local officials know what their people like.”

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, clearly supported the measure, but recognized that the committee might kill it. Consequently, he made a motion to send it to the House floor for amendments. That motion was narrowly approved, keeping the bill alive for at least a few more days.

INHERITANCE IS ON YOU — The House Revenue and Taxation Committee took a more favorable view of legislation updating Idaho’s property tax deferral program.

Co-sponsored by von Ehlinger and Sen. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, House Bill 309 is intended to encourage greater use of the program, which allows the state to pay property taxes for certain homeowners.

“The state puts a lien on the property and pays the taxes for those who qualify,” Grow said. “It’s not a permanent outlay. It’s essentially a loan.”

The bill proposes an initial state outlay of $5 million. That would be “loaned” to homeowners in the form of property tax payments, but would then be recouped when the home is sold or the applicant dies.

“The lien would be exercised and the amount the state paid would be refunded,” said Grow, a retired accountant. “Eventually, the (ongoing) cost should be zero.”

The state would also earn a small rate of interest on the deferred taxes.

Qualified applicants include homeowners who are 65 or older, widows and widowers, disabled veterans and other disabled or blind individuals.

Grow noted that there isn’t a lot of demand for the existing tax deferral program. Some of that is because it charges a higher interest rate than HB 309 allows, and it has other restrictions.

He said people also prefer that the state “pay their property taxes as a gift, rather than by accessing the equity in their home, because they want to pass that on as an inheritance to their children.”

The state currently pays out about $20 million per year in the circuit breaker program, Grow said, which provides limited property tax relief to the same people who qualify for the tax deferral program. The difference is that the circuit breaker funding comes entirely from taxpayers, whereas the deferral program doesn’t cost taxpayers anything, beyond the initial $5 million investment.

“It’s not the responsibility of taxpayers to create an inheritance for your children,” he said.

The committee sent HB 309 to the House floor with a favorable recommendation.

BREAKER, BREAKER — The Revenue and Taxation Committee postponed action on a second Grow-von Ehlinger tax bill, because it ran out of time.

House Bill 310 updates the circuit breaker program, expanding the maximum amount of property tax relief available from $1,320 per year to $1,500, and adding a $4,000 standard deduction for medical costs when calculating income limits.

In an effort to ensure that the benefit only goes to the truly needy, the bill also imposes a new asset test.

“We know there are people who live in million-dollar houses who benefit from the circuit breaker,” von Ehlinger said. “That’s wrong. The state shouldn’t be helping people who live in such extravagant homes.”

The asset test only comes into play if the assessed value of someone’s home exceeds the county median. In those situations, applicants would only qualify for the circuit breaker if the combined financial resources of everyone in their household — including cash, stocks and bonds, vehicles and property — totals $20,000 or less.

Gooding County Assessor Justin Baldwin said that figure is so low, it would likely disqualify anyone who currently receive the circuit breaker, if their home value exceeds the county median.

“You’re putting people in a situation where they’d have to sell their assets to pay their taxes,” he said. “As proposed, HB 310 would disqualify all the old farmers, or anyone (with) a retirement plan.”

Baldwin also said the bill has some major administrative problems, because it doesn’t clarify who’s responsible for calculating asset values or who pays for that work.

Baldwin was the only person who had time to testify on the legislation. The committee will take up the bill again this morning.

IT’S NOT THE FLU? — The Senate State Affairs Committee temporarily held von Ehlinger’s joint memorial condemning China for “crimes against humanity” and its “horrendously irresponsible and deceitful handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.”

House Joint Memorial 1 also labels “Communist China” as “a hostile state” and encourages Congress to sanction the government for its “misdeeds.”

“This memorial is about accountability,” von Ehlinger said. “It’s undeniable that COVID-19 turned the world upside down and left many dead. ... I think it’s important to send this to Congress and let them know exactly how Idaho feels.”

Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, agreed that China was an adversary and threat to the United States. However, he wondered how the language in the joint memorial fit with the Republican Party’s “irresponsible” rhetoric regarding COVID-19 over the past year.

“I’m a little confused,” Burgoyne said. “We’ve heard for quite a long time now that COVID-19 was no worse than the flu, that it isn’t a problem, that the only problem is that my party has made it a political issue. But now I see this resolution.”

Among other statements, HJM 1 declares that COVID-19 “has done irreparable damage to countries across the globe, causing sickness, death, economic disruption and human suffering.”

It also notes that, in Idaho, “thousands have been infected (and) many have died.”

“I think this memorial points out a lot of the problems we’re having this session,” Burgoyne said. “It’s fair to say there are members of this Legislature who have put forth the idea that we need to ‘right the balance of power’ between the executive and legislative branch because the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t a crisis, and that people like the governor made it up to grab power. Then we get a resolution like this, which says that rhetoric just isn’t true, this crisis is real, this pandemic is killing people. In that case, the governor responded appropriately. ... Thank goodness we have some truth here (in the joint memorial).”

Von Ehlinger noted that much of the language in the memorial came from a Department of Homeland Security report. Several members of the committee wanted to see the report, so they voted to hold the bill in committee until the information was provided.

Spence covers politics for the Tribune. He may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.