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Idaho Senate kills private school tax credits bill

Tue., March 26, 2013, 2:31 p.m.

BOISE – An Idaho Senate committee has killed legislation to grant $10 million a year in tax credits for donations for scholarships to private schools, a plan Coeur d’Alene Sen. Bob Nonini pitched as a way to save the state millions by encouraging kids to leave Idaho’s public schools.

“This is not a voucher, this is a credit - there is a distinct difference,” Nonini told the Senate tax committee. “It will save the state money.” He estimated that between the state and local school districts, the $10 million tax credit would result in $5.8 million a year in savings and divert more than 2,600 children from public to private schools.

Others said the public schools wouldn’t save any money if a student or two per class left; and noted the Idaho Constitution’s requirements that the Legislature fund public schools and its strict ban on any funding for religious schools.

The bill, HB 286, had earlier passed the House, but very narrowly – the vote was 35-33, with two House members absent.

Chris Finch, principal of Genesis Preparatory Academy in Post Falls, urged the Senate committee to approve the bill, saying his school has 140 students. “The impact of this legislation would be tremendous,” he said. “I continually have to turn away families that just aren’t able to pay the full price of tuition.” He added, “They’ll have to go to public school, and that will in turn cost the state more money and not give those families the choice that they would like in private education.”

Phil Homer, representing both the Idaho Association of School Administrators and the Idaho School Boards Association, told the panel, “Every dollar that’s diverted from that revenue stream hurts the opportunity for us to take a portion of that dollar and apply it to the education of our students in the public schools. Therefore we cannot support this bill.”

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, said, “I do think it’s a good piece of legislation, I do think it helps out low-income people to have an opportunity for choice that others have.” He moved to pass the bill, but only one other senator on the committee, Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, supported his motion; it died on a 2-7 vote.

“Our time is short, but I do have to explain why I can’t support the motion,” said Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. “There’s probably a lot of reasons. By the very nature of this, this is a 501c3 organization – the donor is going to get a charitable contribution deduction both for federal and state income taxes for the full amount. … The donor is going to profit off of making this donation at the expense of the public, and I don’t think that’s what fiscal conservatives want. … That’s not appropriate. It’s just not fair.”

Hill, a CPA, said under the bill, it would cost the public more to grant tax credits than the private schools would gain. “We’d be a lot better off just making an appropriation for $8 million to these schools, however our Constitution won’t let us,” he said.

This is the second straight year Nonini has unsuccessfully pushed for the tax credit bill; when he proposed it last year, the former four-term GOP representative was chairman of the House Education Committee. This year, he was elected to the Senate.

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