When it comes to the Idaho Legislature, which convenes Monday, it’s better to not get your hopes up.
Unless, of course, you’re counting on tax cuts.
Cowed by the Idaho Freedom Foundation and facing the closed GOP primary in less than five months, the Republican-led Legislature is fixated on ballooning budget surpluses — including $750 million available to be spent once and $768 million that is available for sustainable programs. Already, Assistant House Majority Leader Jason Monks, R-Meridian, has outlined a $400 million income tax cut on top of the record-busting $383 million break passed last year.
Never mind that in Idaho’s case, a budget surplus reflects bills the state has left unpaid — whether it’s a public school system that spends less per pupil than anywhere else in the country or a higher education network that has been hobbled by systematic disinvestment and tuition freezes.
But if the GOP is so hellbent on giving money away, how about delivering it to people who are struggling to put food on the table and put a roof over their heads?
Fifteen years is long enough. This GOP leadership should redeem its pledge to lift sales tax from grocery purchases. The estimated $230 million price is well within the state’s means and it’s popular with the rank and file. Sure, the idea has its flaws. Still, it’s better than slicing another $400 million in income taxes for the investor class.
“Your 80-year-old mother goes to that same store for a loaf of bread but learns that loaf that cost $2 last year now costs $3 and the tax has gone from 12 cents to 18 cents, an increase of 50 percent,” Bonneville County Republican County Chairman Mark Fuller complained in the Idaho Falls Post Register Wednesday. “Mom’s Social Security check has not gone up 50 percent but the food tax sure has.”
How about some help for Idaho’s beleaguered Idaho property taxpayer? Many of them are propping up schools with so-called supplemental levies because of inadequate state support. As Idaho Education News’ Kevin Richert reported last week, the cost of these levies set a new record for the sixth consecutive year — at $218.2 million. Throw in the amount of money poor, largely rural districts, would raise if they had the same opportunity, the cost would approach the $250 million Idaho’s maintenance and operation levy raised for schools before then-Gov. Jim Risch eliminated it in 2006.
So borrow a page from former Gov. Phil Batt, who in 1995 used surplus state cash to ease the school tax burden. Take the largest supplemental property tax levy rate, extrapolate it to the market values in rich and poor communities alike and then appropriate the equivalent in state money to the local schools.
Don’t expect this Legislature to do much of anything to help preschoolers — even though more than half of them show up for the first day of class unprepared to learn. Last year, Republican lawmakers killed a three-year, $18 million federal grant to expand early childhood education opportunities across Idaho. Last week, the State Board of Education threw in the towel on making a second attempt, telling the Department of Health and Human Services to keep its money. But would it be too much to ask this state to join the 21st century and fund universal all-day kindergarten? The price is put at $42 million. Leading the effort are two Republicans, Sen. Carl Crabtree of Grangeville, and Rep. Judy Boyle of Midvale.
Not only would that be good for youngsters — research shows more time in class helps kids catch up — it would take the heat off local taxpayers, who are now paying the costs where full-day kindergarten is offered.
If tax cuts are all we get from this session, at least bend the tax-cutting proclivities of Idaho’s ruling class toward the needs of common, ordinary Idahoans.
After all, they vote Republican, too. — M.T.