Kootenai County’s “resort county” tax legislation cleared its toughest hurdle so far on Wednesday, winning over a Senate committee.
The bill appeared dead following a tied committee vote, but less than an hour later was revived and sent to the full Senate for minor amendments.
It was a rough hour for the two lobbyists representing the county, Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls. They scrambled, buttonholing senators who left the committee meeting room for a drink of water or a bathroom break. “We did kind of have a little heart palpitation for a second,” admitted lobbyist Mike Kane.
Chuck Lempesis, the other lobbyist, said afterward, “I think there was obviously some minor misunderstanding and miscommunication. When clarified, the bill was favorably received.”
The bill, which applies only to Kootenai County, would allow a local sales tax if 60 percent of local voters want it. At least 50 percent of the proceeds would go to property tax relief. Local officials say that would allow them to tap tourists to help pay for law enforcement, parks and roads - services now funded solely by local property taxpayers.
Although aimed at tourists, everyone in Kootenai County would pay the tax. Property owners would get some of their money back through property tax savings.
Sen. Tim Tucker, D-Porthill, the committee’s only North Idaho member, visited with the lobbyists in the hallway repeatedly as they lined up their votes.
The break came after Lempesis and Kane huddled with Hagadone Corp. lobbyist Russ Westerberg, who then sent a scribbled note in to Sen. Ralph “Moon” Wheeler, R-American Falls. Wheeler was one of four senators who had voted to kill the bill.
Wheeler came out and huddled with the lobbyists in the hallway.
A few minutes later, Wheeler asked Chairman Jerry Thorne if the bill could be reconsidered, saying he hadn’t seen amendments attached to the bill in the House.
“These amendments make a substantial difference to the way this bill reads,” Wheeler said. “I would hope the committee would favorably reconsider this.”
He moved that the bill be sent out for additional minor amendments, to make all references to “sales tax” say “sales or use tax.” The committee agreed on a voice vote.
That wording issue had been raised Monday by Sen. Stan Hawkins, R-Ucon, who supported the bill Wednesday.
Afterward, Wheeler said, “I’m not a big fan of local-option taxes.” But the House amendment “takes care of several of my concerns,” he said. “I had never gotten to see those before.”
The House amendments consist of language supplied by the state Tax Commission to clarify that at least 50 percent of the proceeds from the local sales tax would go to property tax relief. That was consistent with the original intent of the bill.
Wheeler said he now likes the bill. “It cannot be imposed without a vote of the people,” he said. “They can make a fully informed decision. Maybe this can serve as a test area for local-option taxes for the state.”
Thorne, R-Nampa, didn’t vote on the motion to amend the bill. “This bill says it in four words that I don’t like: local-option sales tax,” he said afterward.
Thorne opposes local-option taxes on principle, saying Idaho’s tax system is well-balanced as-is.
The full Senate could consider amending the bill as soon as this week. It already has passed the House.