When nothing new happens, it’s generally not news.
Except in one case: the steadily increasing property tax burden Idahoans have assumed to support local schools.
There’s nothing new about that. As a rule, patrons pay those bills because the Legislature has been stingy with public education budgets.
During the past four or five years, however, lawmakers have been patting themselves on the backs for approving a series of $100 million public school budget increases.
So you’d expect to see those local property tax levies level off.
Not so fast.
As Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News reported Tuesday, the total in supplemental levies patrons paid this year rose to $214 million, eclipsing last year’s record of $202.2 million.
Once again, the patrons of Lewiston and Moscow schools are shouldering some of Idaho’s largest supplemental property tax burdens:
l Coeur d’Alene — $20 million.
l Lewiston — $15.7 million.
l West Ada — $14 million.
l Lake Pend Oreille — $12.7 million.
l Moscow — $11.4 million.
l Boise — $10.7 million.
l Nampa —$9.4 million.
l Pocatello-Chubbuck — $9.3 million.
l Lakeland —$8.9 million.
l Idaho Falls —$6.8 million.
What’s more, the trend is accelerating. This year’s increase comes to almost 6 percent — the fastest growth since the state was emerging from budget cuts imposed during the Great Recession and then-Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter was launching his school reform package.
Technically, these levies are known as supplementals, but it’s a misnomer. Rather than paying for extras, these tax dollars provide basic programs. If you doubt it, consider Kamiah. In March, voters rejected a $500,000 supplemental levy, leaving Kamiah to rely only on what the state provides. As a result, Kamiah closed its middle school, deferred maintenance and relied on a bare-bones academic program.
The money also creates a gap between the haves and have nots. School districts with considerable property tax wealth — typically those in urban centers — can raise more money than communities without ample tax bases — which tend to be small and rural. For that problem, you can thank Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, who as Idaho’s interim governor in 2006 eliminated the equalized property tax levy that helped support public schools.
All of which leads to one question: If state budgets are rising, why do patrons feel compelled to raise their local taxes at the same time?
After all, the state constitution obligates the Legislature with a “duty” to “establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”
For all their talk about boosting school spending, state lawmakers have barely made up for cuts made a decade ago.
Factor inflation and enrollment growth into the mix as the Pew Charitable Trust did and you’ll find the amount Idaho spends on each of its school children is 11 percent less than it was before the Great Recession began in 2008.
And before that, public education budgets were never robust. As the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy notes, the share of Idaho’s aggregate personal income devoted to K-12 has dropped almost 25 percent since the turn of the century.
That’s why the state’s per pupil spending ranks 50th out of the 51 states and District of Columbia.
It’s why even after all the money was invested in teacher pay, the state cannot compete with salaries offered in more than 40 states.
That’s why people in Lewiston, Moscow, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho Falls, Boise, Meridian and Rexburg — and that’s just a few of the 92 schools involved — are willing to pay property taxes to attract and retain better teachers.
Ask a school superintendent why he needs more local support, and he’ll point toward something as basic as upgraded textbooks and curriculum. State support falls far short of covering those costs.
He’ll point out that state money does not fill the gaps in special education left behind by federal funding.
State dollars do not provide the extra classroom aides required for some special needs students.
Nor does the state provide enough money to offer all-day kindergarten — although 81 of Idaho’s 115 school districts think the investment in young children is worth it.
And when the state does provide extra money, it often comes with strings attached. It’s not too difficult to convince local people to spend local dollars for local priorities — especially when it means a local school employee won’t be tasked with filling out paperwork for bureaucrats in Boise.
What’s ironic here is that however inadequate the state spending spree has been these past few years, the era may be coming to a close. In 2018 and 2019, Republican lawmakers engaged their fetish for cutting income taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations. If the money gets tight next year, you can bet on paying even more supplemental property taxes.
Of course, when that happens, nobody should be surprised. — M.T.