Gov. Phil Batt said in a speech Wednesday he won’t support any general tax increases, and he’s not ready to push for legislation making it easier to pass a school construction bond.
Anne Fox, state superintendent of schools, was in the front row. As soon as Batt concluded his talk to the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho, she leapt to her feet.
Stretching out her arms, she demanded, “What’s going to happen to our school buildings?”
Fox is pushing for a half-cent sales tax increase to fund a backlog of school construction needs statewide that’s estimated to be as much as $1 billion.
The tax would raise $60 million a year, which school districts could use to pay off bonds, maintain buildings or subsidize new construction.
Legislative committees have quashed Fox’s proposal two years running, saying they didn’t want to raise taxes.
But Fox said, “Something’s got to be done.”
“I’m not getting negativity from the public,” she said. “They call and say, ‘I’d support that.”’ Idaho is the toughest place in the nation to build a school, because it’s the only state that requires a two-thirds vote to pass a school bond and provides no state money for school construction. That means local property taxpayers must agree to foot the entire bill through higher taxes.
Said Batt, “I don’t know what the answer is. I think it’s a good topic for legislative debate, and I hope they talk about it. … I at this point am not prepared to recommend radical changes.”
The exchange between Batt and Fox came as more than 300 local officials, state legislators, lobbyists, business people and others gathered for the association’s annual conference. The gathering traditionally functions as a kickoff to debate on the hottest issues that will face the Legislature when it convenes in January.
Batt had hinted in recent weeks that he was reconsidering his longtime support for the two-thirds “supermajority” requirement for school bonds.
“I have not yet convinced myself that changing this is wise,” he said Wednesday. “I’m merely looking at it.”
Batt said he’s leading a drive now to pass a school bond in his hometown of Wilder
“Last time we tried it, we got about 30 percent of the vote,” he said.
But if a community keeps trying and scales back its building plans to just what’s necessary, it should be able to persuade voters to go along, he said.
Batt said after his talk that he might support lowering the supermajority to 60 percent if the vote takes place at a primary or general election, when more people turn out to vote.
But he noted that any change would take a constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and majority approval from voters. The governor’s signature isn’t required.
“It’s strictly up to them,” Batt said.
House Speaker Mike Simpson said he agrees with Batt that taxes shouldn’t be raised. He favors finding money in the state budget to subsidize 20 percent of school districts’ construction costs.
“You could do that for $15 million, but it’s got to be there every year,” Simpson said.
A state subsidy would make bonds less expensive for local taxpayers, he said. “Some superintendents I’ve talked to have said it would have the same effect as lowering the supermajority four or five points.”
Rep. Larry Watson, D-Wallace, said from what he heard at the taxpayers’ conference Wednesday, prison costs are likely to swallow up any spare money in the state budget.
“We’re going to have to do something,” he said. “We’re going to have to come up with some money.”
Simpson said the system is unfair because some districts have residents who can afford to pass school bonds, and some don’t.
“The quality of your education in Idaho shouldn’t depend on where you live.”
Fox said Sandpoint is an example. “It’s hard for them to pass an override, let alone a bond to build buildings.”
A lawsuit against the state by a group of school districts argued that Idaho isn’t meeting its constitutional requirement to provide a thorough education because it’s not addressing the school building problem.
But a judge threw the suit out last week, saying there’s no specific constitutional requirement that the state fund school buildings.
Said Fox, “I hope we get help, because it’s just been going on much too long and the amount is escalating.”
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