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Opinion >  Column

Eye on Boise: Private school tax break plan heads to House vote

BOISE – Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, says he believes his bill to provide $10 million a year in tax credits for scholarships to private schools would prompt 2,622 Idaho students to transfer from public to private schools, plus another 465 kindergartners to enroll in private rather than public schools.

“That’s a total savings to the state budget of $3.3 million,” Nonini told the House tax committee Friday, saying each child who switches “will accrue a $4,251 savings into the state budget.” House Bill 286 would grant the tax credits to corporations or individuals who donate to organizations that provide the scholarships.

Nonini calculated that public schools would get $11 million less in state funding through the average daily attendance formula due to the switch, though that would be offset by an estimated $8 million in tax credits, his calculation for how much of the $10 million is likely to be used.

Committee members had lots of questions about Nonini’s calculations but finally voted 12-4 in favor of the bill Friday. That moves it to the full House.

Nonini also presented an attorney general’s opinion that said the idea behind the bill “has provoked and likely will continue to provoke substantial litigation,” but said the state would defend the law as constitutional if it were passed. “I can’t control if there’s challenges or not,” Nonini told the committee. “There’s not any state money going into a transfer,” and all private schools, religious and nonreligious, would receive equal treatment, he said.

The Idaho Constitution has strict prohibitions against state funding for religious schools.

Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, citing the same attorney general’s opinion, said it also suggests that “the transfer of funds is essentially an artful dodge to allow sort of a shell with respect to support of religious schools.”

Among those testifying in favor of the bill was Chris Finch, principal of Genesis Prep Christian Academy in Post Falls. “Many, many families, month after month, week after week, come to our schools” and would like to enroll their students, he said, “but are not able to afford the tuition. … Fifty-two percent of students receive some sort of discount, some sort of tuition assistance. … But we can’t do it all. We have to subsidize those costs by paying our teachers less.”

Alex Knoll, an 8-year-old student at LAM Christian Academy in Coeur d’Alene, dressed in a dark-blue suit, told the committee, “I am blessed to go to a school that allows me to learn and experience things that I might not be able to experience in other schools. My classmates and I are way ahead of most other kids in our area.”

Speaking against the bill were representatives of the Idaho Association of School Administrators, the Idaho School Boards Association and the Idaho Education Association, all of whom said the bill would take state money away from the state’s already cash-strapped public schools. Paul Stark, general counsel for the IEA, also raised questions about whether the bill would violate the Idaho Constitution.

‘Last best offer’

Legislation to revive one of the most controversial pieces of voter-rejected Proposition 1 – letting Idaho school districts unilaterally impose contract terms if negotiations with their local teachers unions don’t lead to an agreement by June 10 – cleared the House last week on a near-party-line vote. House Bill 260, which passed on a 55-14 vote and now heads to the Senate, would allow school districts to impose their “last best offer” if no agreement is reached by that date.

“This legislation would require that both parties negotiate in good faith,” Rep. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, told the House. The bill has a one-year expiration date to allow lawmakers to study the results.

Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “I tell you … the real problem with this bill, and several others, is that we have seen a systematic disinvestment in K-12 education, and that is why our school boards are grasping for straws, looking for a leg up, and in so many ways are taking it out on what is their largest expense, the employees.”

Tribe tax bill passes

House Bill 140, the bill brought by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe on behalf of all of Idaho’s Indian tribes to clarify that reservation property owned by tribal governments isn’t subject to county sales taxes, has passed the Senate on a 33-2 vote. It now heads to the governor’s desk. Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said, “It’s something that should’ve been done long ago. It promotes unity.”

The only two “no” votes came from Sens. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow. The bill earlier passed the House, 64-3.

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