Talk about quixotic.
Reclaim Idaho, the group responsible for passing the Medicaid expansion initiative last year, has set its sights on a new measure: If passed by the voters in November 2020, it would raise taxes on Idaho’s wealthiest 5 percent and corporations, thereby providing struggling public schools with an extra $170 million or more.
What is Reclaim Idaho thinking?
Doesn’t it know that corporate Idaho — which either outright supported Medicaid expansion or at least stayed on the sidelines — will get out its checkbooks for a multimillion dollar advertising campaign to kill the idea?
Just imagine those ubiquitous, misleading television themes:
Higher taxes will kill jobs and businesses.
Middle class families will bear the brunt.
The measure will raise the cost of living
Idaho’s economy will stall out.
Doesn’t Reclaim Idaho realize Idahoans are ambivalent when it comes to new taxes?
Sure, they love their schools. As Boise State University’s public policy survey notes every year, public education tops the list of priorities. People also have reservations about the quality of their schools.
But that same survey says more than two-thirds think taxes are “about right,” while 20.4 percent think taxes are “too high.” And how many think taxes are “too low”? A mere 8.3 percent.
And has Reclaim Idaho forgotten how conservative the average Idaho voter is? This is a red state. Name the office: Congress, Senate, governor and the bulk of the Legislature. All of them are filled with Republicans.
Sounds like a formula for certain defeat, right?
OK. Then what’s the alternative?
Year after year, Idaho’s Republican governors and lawmakers have cut taxes — often for the well-to-do and corporations — even though the state’s tax burden is the nation’s 46th lowest.
No wonder the traditional share of Idaho’s wealth devoted to public education has dropped by about 25 percent since the turn of the century.
No wonder Education Week ranked Idaho dead last in the country in terms of its financial commitment to its schools.
The state is perennially last — or next to it — in terms of the amount of money it devotes to each child’s education.
Even with a recent influx of money into public schools, the state still is spending less per pupil than it did when the Great Recession triggered a series of budget cuts.
Idaho can’t afford to match what teachers would earn in 40 other states, including most of its neighbors. The Gem State is losing 10 percent of its teachers each year — and four of every five are not retiring. They’re going after more money — either by leaving the profession or moving to another state.
No wonder Idaho patrons have been forced to dig deep and raise more than $200 million in property taxes to help compensate — but only partially — for inadequate state school funding.
No wonder 45 of Idaho’s 115 school districts — primarily those in the rural areas where it’s tougher to raise more local tax dollars — are operating four days a week to save money.
No wonder kids show up for kindergarten unprepared to learn, high school graduates decline to continue their educations and Idaho businesses can’t find enough skilled labor.
And Idaho’s elected leadership just broke the bank with a big income tax break in 2018 and a sweetheart deal for multinational corporations earlier this spring. Not only is the state’s budget cushion about $122 million lower than expected, but falling revenues have cast a shadow over the legislative session that will come back to work in January.
Good luck doing much more than maintaining current operations, let alone improving teacher pay and expanding resources. And this is happening when Idaho’s economy is booming. What happens when it slows down?
So think of this new initiative campaign as an insurance policy against a Legislature that may have notions about getting stingy with school budgets.
Watch that unfold and voters may come to see Reclaim Idaho’s latest venture not so much as a tax increase but as a lifeline to save their children’s education. — M.T.