A plan to charge Idaho restaurants a license fee for health inspections is back, and this time, one of the major opponents has changed sides.
That may make the fourth time the charm for the controversial proposal championed by Gov. Phil Batt but opposed by the restaurant industry in the past.
The proposed $55 annual fee would be one of the smallest in the Northwest. It would impact nearly 8,000 businesses that cook and serve food, including street-corner hot dog vendors.
Because recent state budgets have been so tight, finding funds for restaurant inspections has been a major concern of the state Department of Health and Welfare.
Dick Schultz, administrator of the Division of Health, said the food facility industry has grown by 16 percent in the past year and state funding has not kept up. The proposed fees could mean an extra $440,000 a year for local health districts to help pay for safety inspections.
The fee would benefit the industry as well as the consumer, said Schultz. It would be a sharing of the burden among the state, the public and the industry.
The new plan is a revamping of last year’s restaurant inspection bill, proposed by Batt. It died in committee.
“I think there is a strong need for change in the program, and this legislation would provide for additional moneys from outside the general fund,” said David Hand, a lobbyist for the Idaho Hospitality and Travel Association. The group, which represents restaurants, opposed last year’s bill.
“We were a major opponent,” said Hand. “We supported the use of general fund moneys last year. We’re in a short finance year. It’s more reasonable to impose a licensing fee.”
Schultz said that this year, because “the industry is introducing it (the bill), … I think it stands a better chance.”
With last year’s legislation, the industry fretted that money collected from a fee might not be used exclusively for inspections. Hand said the new bill guarantees that money raised by the licensing fees will go to the inspection program.
The group also worried that there was no certainty that the fee would not skyrocket.
“There is still no guarantee. We cannot control the action of a future sitting Legislature. But we feel this bill needs to be distributed,” said Hand.
This is a big change from last year, when some of his group’s members said they felt inspections should be paid for out of the general tax fund.
Batt is a strong proponent of the bill. He listed it in his previous two proposed budget plans and was angry last year when the bill didn’t clear committee.
But the bill has opposition.
Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he still believes a flat $55 fee for all food establishments is unfair. Smaller operations should pay less than larger ones, he said.
Cameron also questioned whether restaurant inspections are effective in stopping the outbreak of disease. Last year, a restaurant in his district had a hepatitis outbreak two days after a health inspection, he said.
Last spring, Batt said 47 states charge restaurants fees to pay for health inspections and that Idaho should join them.
“What could be a more legitimate cost of business than to pay a fee to the state for policing the sanitary conditions of your establishment?” he said in a March statement. “Child-care centers are charged a substantial fee for inspection. Why should restaurants be exempt?”
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