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Penny cause for complex thought

BOISE – It sounded simple originally. Proposition 1 on Idaho’s November ballot, as envisioned last winter, would raise the sales tax a penny and give the money to public education.

But the measure contained a clause saying that if the Legislature already has raised the sales tax to 6 percent, then lawmakers would have to come up with another way to increase school funding by a comparable amount.

In a special session in August, the Legislature raised the sales tax to 6 percent, up from 5 percent, as part of a plan to reduce property taxes. So now the other clause has kicked in, but voters are confused as they head to the polls.

“We’ve had quite a few phone calls and people asking, and they’re confused specifically if (Proposition 1) was going to raise the sales tax or not,” said Kootenai County Clerk Dan English. “We were kinda confused a bit, too.”

The answer? The state sales tax won’t necessarily go up to 7 percent if voters approve Proposition 1. With the sales tax already at 6 percent, lawmakers could turn to an array of other ways to come up with the funds – eliminating sales tax exemptions, for instance, or looking to other taxes such as the beer and wine tax, the income tax or even property taxes. Legislators also could cut spending elsewhere. Or they could raise the sales tax again.

“We haven’t taken an official position on where we think they should get the money,” said Ryan Hill, communications director for Invest in Our Kids Education Campaign, the sponsors of Proposition 1. “These guys are the budget experts, the tax experts.”

The one thing Proposition 1 would do for certain is force lawmakers to increase funding for schools, from kindergarten through 12th grade, by an amount equal to what a 1-cent sales tax increase would raise. For next year, the latest estimates put that figure at $219 million.

That would be a considerable boost in a general fund budget for public schools that now totals just over $1 billion. The measure requires that the new money come in addition to the existing school budget, not replace part of it.

Proposition 1 requires the new money go into a special fund to be given to school districts for nine purposes:

“Provide textbooks and supplies;

“Provide every high school student with the opportunity to take either college preparatory courses or professional and technical training courses;

“Reduce class sizes;

“Attract and retain highly qualified teachers and other employees;

“Replace out-of-date or broken technology;

“Restore programs previously eliminated;

“Provide classroom aides;

“Provide support for arts and music education;

“Pay for maintenance.

The measure is pushed by the Idaho Education Association, the state teachers’ union, and has received large infusions of funding from the National Education Association. The group that developed the initiative also includes the Idaho PTA, the Idaho School Administrators Association and others.

Hill said the groups were discouraged after pleading unsuccessfully, year after year, for more school money from the Legislature, so they decided to try an initiative.

Schools are suffering from overcrowded classrooms, outdated textbooks, crumbling buildings and supply shortages, Hill said, and teachers are leaving the state for big pay raises elsewhere.

“Districts around the state, some more so than others, are hurting because of the lack of funding,” he said.

A new U.S. Census Bureau report in June ranked Idaho second to last among the states and the District of Columbia in per-pupil spending on public schools.

Education funding long has been at the top of the list of what Idahoans want the state to spend more on, according to Boise State University’s annual public policy survey.

“That’s been consistent,” said BSU political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby. “K-12 has always been at the top of the list.”

But for state Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, the issue isn’t that simple. Eskridge, a member of the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said, “We have to look at the whole economic spectrum as well as looking at what the taxpayer can bear when looking at monies. (Proposition 1) seems to me just a very difficult way to try to budget the state appropriations.”

Eskridge wrote a piece in a local weekly journal about upcoming initiatives. He quoted the secretary of state’s information about what Proposition 1 would do, then got a call from a constituent who wanted to know if the 1-cent increase in the sales tax lawmakers approved in August would “cover” the education funding increase called for in Proposition 1.

It won’t, because the sales tax increase that went into effect Oct. 1 is paying for shifting a portion of existing school funding off of the property tax. That tax-shifting plan was aimed at lowering property taxes, not increasing school funding.

So Eskridge wrote a clarification in the next issue of the journal, saying Proposition 1 would push the sales tax up to 7 percent. “I might have messed up – I may have to redo that,” he said. “Now I’m seeing where the confusion might be coming in. … I’ll try to clear that up in my next article.”

It may be adding to the confusion that the Proposition 1 campaign is running television ads featuring the theme of a penny for education.

“The penny is an icon of our campaign, and has been since we started gathering signatures,” Hill said. “When the Legislature decided to raise the sales tax by the penny, even though we lost the penny, we didn’t lose the symbolism of the penny. What Proposition 1 would require the Legislature to do is devote a penny’s worth of funding to Idaho schools. The penny is still the measuring stick.”

Weatherby said despite the confusion, the measure is clearer than some on Idaho’s ballot in the past – such as a term limits referendum in 2002 in which a “no” vote meant “yes” to term limits. That measure narrowly passed with 50.2 percent of the vote, repealing Idaho’s term limits.

For Proposition 1, the ballot says, “A YES vote would direct the Legislature to increase state funding for public schools. A NO vote would make no change in school funding.”