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Bill allowing tax credits for private school donations stalls in Idaho

BOISE - On the final day of Idaho’s legislative session, Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, reluctantly backed off of his proposal to grant a $10 million-a-year state tax credit for donations to scholarships to send Idaho kids to private schools; he maintains the big tax credit would save the state money because there would be fewer kids to educate in public schools.

“If we’re going to be supporters of choice in education, I think this is a good way to go about it,” Nonini said Thursday.

But he ran afoul of House procedures, because he introduced and passed the bill in the House Education Committee, which he chairs, rather than the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, which handles tax bills.

“I think it stinks,” said House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, who objected to suspending House rules and voting on the bill Thursday.

“Tax measures always start in the Rev and Tax Committee,” Lake told the House. “This bill, HB 670, incorporates a tax credit by reference, and we have not had a chance to vet that.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, had harsher words about the proposal. “It’s preposterous,” she said. “Our responsibility … is to provide the best public education we can, and we have absolutely no business meddling in the finances of the private schools.”

Nonini’s bill is something of a novel way to get at something Idaho has never successfully enacted: Tuition tax credits for private and parochial schools. Such legislation has never succeeded in part because of the Idaho Constitution’s strong prohibition against using state funds for religious instruction.

Nonini estimated that his bill would shift nearly 2,500 kids out of Idaho’s public schools and into private schools; he figured the savings from not having to educate those kids would more than offset the $10 million-a-year cost. “I think it’s very possible that the state could save money,” he said.

Ringo, a retired math teacher, said, “It’s absolutely a fallacious argument, and I’m offended by it.”

She said, “When a child leaves the public schools, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the school needs to provide any less services.” The only way such savings could come, she said, might be if “you happen to take 30 kids that all happen to be in the same algebra class.” But if one or two kids left each class, the school still would have to provide the teacher, the classroom, the school bus and other expenses, she said – with less funding from the state, which is doled out per-student.

Under Nonini’s bill, a corporation could offset half its state income tax liability by donating toward private-school scholarships for low- to moderate-income kids; individuals could offset their entire state income tax liability by making the donations.

“I’ve always been a person that has campaigned and believed in choice for education,” Nonini said. The House Education chairman for the past six years, he’s running in November for the Senate. “Do we believe that all children should be in public education?” Nonini asked. “Or that there should be choices?”

Nonini groused over Lake’s objection in the House on Thursday, and said he’d still try to see if he could get enough votes to push his bill through. But just before 3 p.m., in the last action taken in the House this year, he gave in and asked for unanimous consent of the House to send his bill back to the Education Committee. He promised to “continue to work on this and maybe look at it again next year.”