With a $5 million property tax cut for Kootenai County hanging in the balance, a legislative committee debated community college funding for four hours Friday, but couldn’t agree to do anything.
“I’m surprised at the resistance on the committee,” said Rep. Bruce Newcomb, R-Burley, the House majority leader.
Rep. Ron Black, co-chairman of the Interim Committee on Higher Education, said afterward he would sponsor a scaled-down bill himself. Black, R-Twin Falls, wanted to impose a surcharge on liquor, beer and wine sales to replace the local property taxes that three counties - Kootenai, Twin Falls and Jerome - now pay to support Idaho’s two community colleges.
Idaho’s other colleges - all but one of which provide two-year as well as four-year programs - collect no local property tax.
“We have among the taxpayers the feeling that, ‘Is it fair?”’ North Idaho College President Bob Bennett told the committee. “That same (two-year) function is being allowed at the other schools, and the local people don’t have to pay for it.”
Kootenai County taxpayers will pay $5.8 million to support NIC in 1996. Jerome and Twin Falls taxpayers together will pay $3.7 million to support the College of Southern Idaho.
Black offered the committee several options, including one that would add a 10 percent surcharge on state liquor sales plus double the beer and wine taxes to replace the property tax funds. Idaho’s beer tax of $4.65 per barrel hasn’t been raised or adjusted for inflation since 1961. The wine tax, 45 cents per gallon, hasn’t changed since 1971.
Brian Harris, representing the Distilled Spirits Council, told the committee that state and federal taxes on liquor already are high. “It’s gotten to the point that it’s diminishing returns,” he said. If the tax rises much more, he said, people will switch to beer or wine or stop drinking, and the state won’t make any money.
Bill Roden, who represents the Idaho Beer & Wine Distributors Association, suggested community colleges should go through the regular budget process to seek more funds rather than turning to a special tax.
Black said when he saw how long it’d been since beer and wine taxes had risen, “My first inclination was: Has Bill Roden been here that long?”
Roden, a powerful and well-respected lobbyist, responded that he voted for the beer tax as a state senator in 1961. “But yes, I have been around a long time.”
Several lengthy reports were presented to the committee that the presenters acknowledged didn’t relate directly to the issue. Among them was a report from Sen. Hal Bunderson, R-Meridian, that said the classification system for beer and wine needs attention. Microbrewed beers, pre-mixed cocktails and other products all have been classified as wine.
Black said that clouded the beer and wine tax issue for him, so he decided to focus on a liquor surcharge. And because committee members were reluctant, he proposed a 5 percent surcharge instead of 10 percent.
But when Newcomb moved to recommend a 5 percent surcharge, only two other committee members would support him, so he withdrew his motion.
Sen. Clyde Boatright, R-Rathdrum, said he’d oppose it because he preferred 10 percent.
Rep. Frank Bruneel, R-Lewiston, said he thought the idea of relieving the local property taxpayers was good, but he didn’t like using the liquor tax. He preferred a proposal a few years back to tax soda pop.
Newcomb replied, “It’s always easier to tax sins, and so far pop is not a sin.”
Black said he’ll propose a bill to make up about half of the community college property tax with a liquor surcharge, which at least would take part of the burden off of the three counties.
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