Idaho’s counties face a pair of problems.
Their constituents are crying out for property tax relief.
And many of those counties must do something about overcrowded and/or aged jails.
Nez Perce County can show the way forward — if lawmakers are agreeable.
Of course, that’s a big “if.”
By 2003, Nez Perce County had voted six times against raising property taxes to replace its old jail. All fell short of the required two-thirds majority; some failed to reach a simple majority.
That year, state lawmakers offered a new option:
l Get a two-thirds majority for a half-cent sales tax surcharge.
l Use half the money to lower property taxes and the rest for a jail.
l The deal is good for 10 years.
In 2004, Nez Perce County voters said yes by 79.3 percent.
That generated almost $30 million during a decade. The county got its new jail. Taxpayers got a substantial break.
But the law expired in 2009. One after another, other attempts to build new jails by raising property taxes have gone down to defeat. The most recent examples include:
l Twin Falls County — On average, a jail built to hold 200 people is filled with 300. But a $25 million bond to pay for an expansion got only 59.6 percent support last month — well short of the required two-thirds.
l Gooding County — Last month, a $16 million bond barely carried a majority — 50.1 percent — nowhere near the two-thirds required.
l Canyon County — On May 21, nearly two-thirds of voters rejected a $187 million jail bond.
Lawmakers are not innocent bystanders to this problem. Their unwillingness to reform Idaho’s punitive criminal sentencing laws have contributed to the overcrowding. Think of it as an unfunded mandate.
And while a red hot housing market is driving up property taxes, legislators have made things worse. They undermined the Homestead Exemption, neglected the circuit breaker program and drove escalating local school supplemental levies by failing to adequately fund public education budgets.
An obvious solution would allow cities and counties to seek local option sales taxes as an alternative to broad-based property taxes.
The key word here is “option.” Nothing happens unless the voters agree.
Even on this, Idaho is not pure. Resort communities with fewer than 10,000 people already have this alternative. So far, 14 cities have imposed a local sales tax surcharge.
Three other cities — Boise, Idaho Falls and Pocatello — have established auditorium districts that allow them to impose a surcharge of up to 5 percent on lodging purchases.
As Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press noted this weekend, 38 states allow local option taxes. That includes Washington — where a sales tax surcharge to replace Asotin County’s overcrowded jail just passed.
Don’t count on Idaho becoming the 39th.
“It’s crazy, and all it will do is add to the problem,” says House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star. “I think that local option ought to stay right where it is right now, and that’s dead.”
But why not at least follow the Legislature’s own precedent? Why not restore a limited local option sales tax for new jail construction and property tax relief?
That’s what the Idaho Association of Counties will seek next year, and the idea is not lost on House Revenue and Taxation Committee Chairman Gary Collins, R-Nampa.
“That’s something we could look at,” he told Russell.
Here’s a solution that’s gone through a successful shakedown cruise in Nez Perce County. If Idaho lawmakers said yes the first time, why would they say no today? — M.T.