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News >  Idaho

Teachers seek increase in sales tax

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer

BOISE – Idaho teachers have filed a ballot initiative that would raise the state’s sales tax back up to 6 percent, and devote the extra penny to increased funding for public schools.

If passed, the Local Public Schools Investment Act, proposed by the Idaho Education Association, could generate an additional $187 million a year for schools. IEA President Sherri Wood said the measure would “provide adequate and stable funding to local schools.”

The state now spends about $987 million a year in state tax funds on public schools – 45.3 percent of the state budget. But 15 years ago, schools got 51 percent of the state’s general fund budget. The initiative is designed to make sure the new money from the sales tax would add to, rather than replace, existing school funding.

“This initiative will help supply classrooms with up-to-date materials and supplies for students as well as protecting or reducing class sizes,” Wood said in a news release. “It will also ensure that Idaho can attract and retain quality teachers and staff in local classrooms.”

Idaho’s sales tax dropped back down from 6 percent to 5 percent on July 1, when a two-year, temporary sales tax increase expired. It was passed to pull the state through a budget crisis, but a Boise State University poll showed most Idahoans weren’t bothered by the additional tax, and sales continued to increase.

However, lawmakers have been contemplating additional sales taxes for other purposes – including property tax relief. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice chairwoman of the Legislature’s joint budget committee and co-chair of a special committee on property tax relief, favors raising the sales tax to replace school funding that now comes from property tax.

“People feel property tax is most onerous,” Keough said. But, she said, “The taxpayer does not have a bottomless pocket from which to extract dollars.”

Keough said she has long fought to protect school funding through the state’s economic downturns, but she has reservations about the proposal. “I’m always supportive of the people of Idaho putting questions on the ballot,” she said. But, she said, “I think it’s time that we set aside the debate of more money, not enough money, and focus on what is enough. … Is it class sizes, and if so, what’s the class size? Is it computer equipment, and if so, what are our goals?”

The initiative would require that local school districts spend 90 percent of the new money on classroom instruction and support, and issue annual reports to the public on how the money is spent.

The IEA plans to work with parents, educators and other interested groups to push the ballot measure.

Tammie Crouch, a mother of three students in the Meridian School District and a backer of the initiative, said, “I fully support providing more money to our public schools. Our kids need more support for meeting the increased testing demands.”

Joe Langan, who has three children in Caldwell schools, said, “It is time someone takes a stand for our kids and public education. The Legislature has not had the will to do what’s right and I am tired of programs being cut and class sizes increased.”

To make the November 2006 ballot, the IEA initiative would need 47,881 signatures from registered voters by April 30. The measure, filed late Monday with the secretary of state’s office, is now under review for constitutionality by the attorney general’s office.

Dan John, tax policy manager for the Idaho State Tax Commission, said his initial review of the measure showed that it would simply raise the tax and direct it to the special school fund. “It looks pretty straightforward,” he said.

Jeff Youtz, legislative budget director, said his quick review of the measure showed the clauses designed to ensure the schools get extra money, rather than just replacing existing state funds, appear to work. “I think it does what it’s intending to do,” he said.

After the attorney general’s office reviews the measure for constitutionality, it would receive ballot titles and then backers could begin gathering signatures.

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