The Idaho Legislature has approved four proposed amendments to the Idaho Constitution that will appear on the ballot in the Nov. 2 general election. Constitutional amendments require two-thirds approval from each house of the Legislature plus a majority vote of the people at the next general election to pass.
S.J.R. 101: This would amend the Idaho Constitution to permit tuition to be charged at the University of Idaho. The Idaho Constitution now forbids that, so students there are charged “fees” rather than tuition. The difference? “Tuition” is what pays for classroom instruction; “fees” pay for everything else. All other Idaho state colleges and universities charge both tuition and fees; that’s left the UI crimped in its flexibility as it copes with state budget cuts, patching together the funding for its various programs. S.J.R. 101 actually passed the Idaho Legislature in 2009, but this is the first general election after that for voters to weigh in. It passed the House 32-2 and the Senate 64-3. Opponents noted that the Constitution envisioned free education for students at the UI, though that’s not quite how it works today.
H.J.R. 4, 5 and 7: These would allow public hospitals, public airports and municipal electric systems, respectively, to incur debt to acquire facilities, property and equipment without the approval of two-thirds of the voters.
The amendments strictly forbid repaying the debt using property taxes. Instead, they require that improvements be paid for with revenues derived from existing or new facilities.
In the case of H.J.R. 7, the amendment also would allow any city-owned electric system to enter into agreements to purchase, exchange or transmit wholesale electricity to customers within its service area without voter approval. Any indebtedness incurred would have to be repaid with electrical system rates and charges, not with tax dollars.
A 2006 Idaho Supreme Court decision prohibited government entities from taking on multiyear debt for such projects without voter approval. David Frazier, the Boise man who brought the lawsuit resulting in that decision, said the amendments amount to nothing more than an effort to deny citizens the right to vote on public financing. He said elected officials don’t trust voters to make the right decisions.
However, supporters say giving public entities the ability to improve facilities and equipment without additional taxes helps attract investment, spurs the economy and improves service. The hospital amendment, for example, would permit public hospitals, many of which are in rural areas, to provide updated medical equipment and technology to better care for patients.