July 17, 2008 in Idaho

Secret tax deals legal, says Wasden

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer

BOISE – Idaho’s attorney general has concluded there was nothing illegal about secret tax deals struck by the state Tax Commission with large multistate corporations to excuse them from paying part of their Idaho taxes.

Key lawmakers greeted Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s legal opinion with relief, but said they now need to examine whether Idaho’s laws should be changed.

“We need to look at things we can do better – policies and procedures, transparency and accountability and all those things,” said Idaho Senate Tax Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. “It’s not a matter now of pointing blame.”

The deals were revealed in a whistleblower’s report submitted by a longtime state tax auditor, Stan Howland, who complained to the governor and the Legislature that the secret deals are so frequent that corporations routinely protest their taxes to get their “Idaho tax break.”

The attorney general’s 12-page review, by Steven L. Olsen, chief of the civil litigation division, examined only whether state law had been violated. It found that tax commissioners are empowered by law to settle tax cases, as they did in those cited by Howland. “Further, the confidentiality of the settlements is mandated by statute,” Olsen wrote in the opinion.

Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, who along with Hill requested the attorney general’s review, said the opinion focused on “a very narrow question, which is, ‘Did anything illegal happen?’ I think it’s helpful,” she said. “But it of course leaves begging the question of whether or not the law underlying the actions that took place is the appropriate law.”

Kelly, an attorney, said she’s particularly concerned about the level of confidentiality involved in the deals.

Howland’s report suggested the settlements were illegal because taxpayers weren’t required to pay all of what they owed.

“As a matter of law, the commission’s discretion in regard to settlements is less constrained than Mr. Howland’s complaint suggests,” Olsen wrote.

Pending is a review by an independent auditor appointed by Gov. Butch Otter to review the Tax Commission’s actions and the whistleblower’s allegations.

In addition, Idaho’s Legislative Services Office is gathering information for all legislators on how the commission’s practices compare to other states’. That report will be complete by mid-August, Hill said.

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or bzrussell@gmail.com.

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