State Superintendent of Schools Anne Fox was “thrilled” Tuesday after the House Revenue and Taxation Committee agreed to introduce her legislation calling for a half-cent increase in the state sales tax to fund school construction.
When she made the same pitch last year, Fox said, “It didn’t even get that far.”
“This is a very critical time,” she said.
Idaho’s schools need hundreds of millions of dollars worth of repair, updating and expansion, according to a state study. But the state has refused for years to put any money toward that backlog. That leaves local property taxes as the only money source for school construction, and construction bonds require a hard-to-get two-thirds vote.
But Fox’s bill faces long odds in a Legislature not inclined to raise taxes.
“I don’t think it’s going to fly,” House Speaker Mike Simpson, R-Blackfoot, said Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t think that bill has wings.”
Most lawmakers in the overwhelmingly Republican Legislature think Idahoans may already be overtaxed, Simpson said, so they won’t support a tax hike.
But, he said, “The people of Idaho might have a different opinion on that.”
Simpson said he was glad the committee had introduced Fox’s bill, so it can be circulated for discussion and hearings can be held. People should let lawmakers on the committee know what they think, he said.
North Idaho has three representatives on the Revenue and Taxation Committee. Rep. Hilde Kellogg, R-Post Falls, is the vice-chairman. Reps. Jim Clark, R-Hayden, and Larry Watson, D-Wallace, also serve on the committee.
Fox’s proposal would raise Idaho’s sales tax from 5 percent to 5.5 percent. The extra tax would generate about $60 million per year, to be distributed to school districts half on the basis of enrollment, and half through the state’s school funding formula.
The money could be used to pay off existing school bonds, construct new buildings, remodel existing buildings, or acquire property.
If the measure passed, the Coeur d’Alene School District would receive $1.85 million a year. Bonner County schools would get $1.35 million; Post Falls, $925,000; Lakeland, $813,000; Kellogg, $431,000; Boundary County, $430,000; St. Maries, $339,000; and Plummer/Worley, $147,000.
Districts could save the money to build a new school, avoiding the interest costs of bonds, Fox said. Or the money could pay for a new roof, buy a portable classroom or pay off part of a bond.
The committee agreed to introduce the bill after Rep. Mark Stubbs, R-Twin Falls, praised its simplicity. “I think this is a good idea that ought to be considered along with all the other proposals,” he said.
School administrators plan to propose a similar bill with a different distribution formula. Rep. Donna Jones, R-Payette, the committee’s chairman, said the committee will consider that measure for introduction on Thursday. No other plans to fund school construction have been put forth this year, though some argue that Rep. Frank Bruneel’s proposal to shift school operations funding from the property tax to the sales tax would make school bonds easier to pass. That measure would raise the sales tax by 1.25 percent and cut the property tax.
Gov. Phil Batt has opposed any general tax increase this year. In his budget address at the start of the legislative session, he said, “I want to assure Idaho’s taxpayers up front that they will not have to dig any deeper into their pockets.”
Batt was traveling Tuesday and couldn’t be reached for comment on Fox’s proposal, but press secretary Frank Lockwood said as far as taxes go, “His position hasn’t changed.”