State schools Superintendent Anne Fox hasn’t given up on an extra sales tax to pay for new school construction.
Fox was derided by GOP legislative leaders for proposing a tax increase when she floated the idea last spring. But, “I’d like to find a way to fund the problem,” she said in a recent interview. “One cent on the dollar for one year would raise $100 million, in one year.”
House Speaker Mike Simpson said Wednesday he still opposes a tax increase, but that the Legislature may address the school building problem this year.
A state study found Idaho needs $700 million worth of school construction, just to bring aging and deteriorating buildings up to par. The state’s fastest-growing areas, including North Idaho, are finding it difficult to fund more schools for their new students.
Idaho provides no state money for school construction, leaving the cost to local property taxpayers. It also requires a two-thirds vote to approve bonds to finance new schools.
Hard-pressed Meridian School District near Boise, which gained 900 students this year, lost a bond vote this week that would have built three new elementary schools and stopped extensive busing and overcrowding. The bond got 64.5 percent of the vote. It needed 66.7 percent.
Fox isn’t interested in changing the two-thirds vote requirement, saying it protects property owners. But she says something should be done to build schools.
She advocates a one-cent extra sales tax for a year, possibly running once every five years.
Using the sales tax means tourists would help fund school construction, she said.
Fox has been bringing up the idea everywhere she goes, including visits to school districts and talks to education groups. Among the school patrons she’s broached the idea to, “probably two-thirds support it, one-third doesn’t,” she said.
Fox said she doesn’t plan to propose legislation this year, because election-year pressures will work against a tax increase. But she’ll keep talking it up, with the idea of preparing legislation for the 1997 session.
“I’ll keep pushing it, I definitely will,” she said. “We have a major problem with school facilities in our state.”
Simpson said the Legislature may beat Fox to the punch. He favors an annual, permanent state appropriation of $15 million to $25 million to match districts’ bond payments. The $15 million figure would allow a 20 percent match, the $25 million level would mean a 33 percent match.
“I think that’s a wise way to go,” he said.
Because the state assistance would make school bonds less expensive for local property taxpayers, districts would have an easier time getting bonds passed, he said.
Idaho’s school-construction problems are real, Simpson said. But the Legislature will have to decide whether it wants to make the philosophical shift of bringing the state into helping fund school construction.
“I’d like to see us do something about it,” he said. “I don’t think the fact that it’s an election year really is going to have anything to do with it.”
Last year, Simpson said, lawmakers held off on funding for school construction to allow Gov. Phil Batt to keep his campaign promise of $40 million in property tax relief.
Batt is concerned that there may not be enough money for state help with school construction this year, either, said Batt spokeswoman Amy Kleiner. She said Batt is more inclined toward lowering the two-thirds vote requirement to 60 percent or 50 percent, with the condition that school bond elections be held on the four regular election days. That way, more voters would turn out.
Batt thinks the current system “is working fairly well” without state funding, Kleiner said. “The governor does not support increasing the sales tax for that purpose.”
State Sen. Mary Lou Reed, D-Coeur d’Alene, said she favors a state appropriation over Fox’s proposal, but is glad Fox is working on the issue. Since schools are generally built with long-term bonds, a revenue source that is stable from year to year would be preferable to a once-every-five-years bump, she said.
Simpson also said the Fox plan poses technical problems, like the cost to reprogram cash registers all over the state every five years.
“I’m not inclined to raise the sales tax at all,” he said.
Simpson cautioned that state help with bond payments won’t necessarily lower property taxes in the long term. If it makes more bonds pass, property taxes could eventually go up.
But, he said, “We’ll get more buildings, which I think need to be built.”
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