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Connecting dots: Tuesday’s school levy results and the personal property tax debate

Thursday could be decision day on the personal property tax — at least in the crucial House Revenue and Taxation Committee.

The panel could decide between two competing plans: House Bill 272, a partial, $18 million to $19 million version favored by cities, counties, the Idaho School Boards Association and the Idaho Association of School Administrators; and House Bill 276, the $120 million, six-year repeal proposed by the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry.

Rev and Tax heard additional testimony Wednesday morning, with most speakers supporting the IACI plan. (School officials turned out in force Tuesday, speaking in favor of the partial repeal.) When the committee reconvenes Thursday, it will hear from sponsors of both bills, then take action.

The timing of all of this is noteworthy.

Because on Tuesday, after Rev and Tax took nearly three hours of testimony on a significant and far-reaching change in the property tax structure, Idaho voters had their say, in districts large and small, from Boundary County to Bear Lake. They went to the polls to approve a startling $107.8 million in property tax levies for schools.

The statewide results were one-sided. Thirty-six districts said yes to school levies. Only four levies and one bond issue failed.

Tuesday night’s results made the ISBA’s Jessica Harrison sound prescient. “Whether we like it or not, many schools relay heavily on supplemental levies,” Harrison told Rev and Tax Tuesday morning.

ScottBedke5
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley

And the results add more resonance to House Speaker Scott Bedke’s remarks later that day. Speaking at an Idaho Press Club luncheon, Bedke pointed out that Idaho has gradually eliminated personal property taxes for over a century. (IACI president Alex LaBeau has made that point in arguing for a full repeal.) But every time the state has pared back the personal property tax, the state has covered the difference with new income or sales taxes — or used robust state revenue growth to pay for the tax relief. This time, lawmakers are debating property tax relief without a clear way to replace the revenue. And this, said Bedke, may explain the lack of a “clear consensus” on repeal.

But while consensus may be lacking in the Statehouse, there is uncommon consensus in the education community. On Tuesday, Rev and Tax heard from ISBA, IASA, the Idaho Education Association and the Idaho Rural Schools Association. All four groups spoke in favor of HB 272.

Lawmakers also heard from school officials in Soda Springs and American Falls — rural districts that each derive at least 40 percent of their property tax dollars from personal property, and prefer HB 272’s partial repeal. On Tuesday night, voters in both districts passed property tax levies.

And lawmakers also heard from Cassia County schools superintendent Gaylen Smyer, another supporter of HB 272.

Smyer leads a district that operates 17 schools and encompasses a land mass larger than the state of Delaware. Even with personal property taxes included in the equation, property tax proposals are a tough sell in Cassia County. Three bond issues have failed in the past five years. And on Tuesday night, a $23 million plant facilities levy failed.

Throughout this debate, education groups have said that eliminating the personal property tax would shift the tax burden to homes and farms — making it tougher to pass levies and bond issues in the future. If they’re right, more districts could find themselves in a situation similar to Cassia County’s.

Coming Thursday: Check back at Idaho Education News for the latest on the personal property tax debate, and reactions from education groups.

Kevin Richert is a reporter and blogger at Idaho Education News (idahoednews.org). Kevin is a former Statesman editorial page editor, with 27 year's experience in Idaho journalism.

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