February 5, 2009 in Idaho

House Speaker blocking Idaho local-option tax bills

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE - Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney is not allowing any local-option tax bill to be considered in the House unless it contains a constitutional amendment, a restriction opposed by many local-option backers.

“That has been my position, that if it’s not a constitutional amendment, I’m not interested,” Denney told The Spokesman-Review.

Idaho allows local governments very few options on raising revenue, limiting them almost entirely to the much-hated property tax, in which increases are capped. Only after multi-year legislative fights did the Legislature allow certain limited local-option taxes like Kootenai County’s recent half-cent local sales tax to fund a jail expansion and property tax relief.

Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise, who backs broader local-option authority for communities around the state, said when he tried to bring his local-option tax bill to the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, he was told that the speaker was reviewing all local-option bills. Durst said the first question he got in that review was whether it had a constitutional amendment, and when he said his bill didn’t, he was informed that the only way he could get it printed was as a personal bill.

Denney is consigning all personal bills this session to the House Ways and Means Committee, which rarely meets; there, they’ll die without hearings. Durst said, “This is not a matter of not having sufficient support in the germane committee. Ultimately, this is a matter of the speaker preventing any ideas that don’t align with his personal views from being heard.”

Denney said he doubts the bill could clear the House tax committee anyway, or that it could pass the full House. “This is an issue that has been around for a number of years,” he said. “We had agreement last year on the constitutional amendment, and people backed out. I think this is substantially different from just any issue - I think we have heard it. I think a constitutional amendment is the way it needs to be addressed.”

Backers of a constitutional amendment want to enshrine into Idaho’s Constitution that local-option sales taxes can only be allowed with two-thirds approval from voters in an entire county, at a November general election. Amending the Constitution takes a two-thirds vote in each house of the Legislature, plus a majority vote of the people at the next general election.

House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said he has clear instructions from the speaker. “If there’s no constitutional amendment, it goes to him,” he said. “I may get it back later.” Asked if he had any problem with that, Lake said, “That’s his call - I work for him, he’s my boss.”

Senate Tax Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, put out a statement this week opposing the constitutional amendment idea, saying it’s not required and it’s just a way to try to impose current lawmakers’ views on future decision-makers. “The notion that today’s lawmakers are better equipped to make responsible decisions than future legislators is unwarranted,” Hill wrote.

Denney said he’s suspicious of those who oppose a constitutional amendment. “It says to me that if you’re willing to set the parameters in code … but you’re not willing to go to the constitutional amendment, what you’re telling me right off is you want to change it - that you don’t want to be tied to those parameters.”

Hill, however, argued that different situations could face local governments far in the future, prompting them to want to impose other local taxes, such as a local fuel tax, or impose a tax in a particular city or area. A constitutional amendment wouldn’t allow either of those.

Denney said he’s not stopping the bill from being considered entirely - it could be proposed in the Senate, he said. While the House has often been zealous over the years at protecting its turf when it comes to introducing tax bills, Denney said, “I think the Constitution is fairly specific on all revenue-raising measures starting in the House. It doesn’t say anything about tax cuts, and it doesn’t say anything about tax policy.” Local-option tax legislation merely authorizes changes in tax policy, Denney said - it doesn’t raise any revenue.

Hill, however, said he’s counted heads on the House tax committee, and even if the Senate passed such a bill, it’d just die in the House committee. “I’m not interested in making members of the Senate go on record on that issue if there’s no chance to get it realized,” he said.

Denney said there’s also another way local-option backers could get their bill enacted - they could go directly to voters with an initiative. The Legislature can overturn voter-passed initiatives, and it’s done so on a few notable occasions, including legislative term limits. But Denney said he wouldn’t try to overturn a voter-passed local-option tax measure. “If you allow the people to vote and they say that’s what they want, sure, I could live with it,” he said.

Hill said he’s actually not a big supporter of local-option taxes. “I would not support a local-option tax in my community - I’d probably campaign against it,” he said. “My point is people ought to have that right to make that decision for themselves,” rather than having state lawmakers “dictate” it for them. “I guess I just have confidence in the local governments and the local citizens, that they’ll do what’s best for their community. … It’s the principle of local control.”

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