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Eye on Boise: Idaho lawmakers tax talks draw criticism

Watchers of the Idaho Legislature are reeling over the news that a panel of state lawmakers from both houses has been meeting all summer to discuss tax policy and tax relief in near secrecy. The group is not listed among the official legislative interim committees or task forces that have been holding open public meetings streamed live on the Internet.

“It’s not an interim committee per se,” House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said Friday. “It’s more of an ad hoc working group.”

Bedke said the effort started when a group of legislative leaders went to Utah in July to meet with lawmakers who worked on a successful, modified flat-tax bill close to a decade ago. He said the GOP leaders of both houses, the minority leaders of both houses, and the tax committee chairs from both houses all were invited, though the minority leaders didn’t go.

They did, however, attend two subsequent joint leadership meetings on the issue. Then, Bedke said, “We’ve passed that off now to the chairs of the two (tax) committees, and they put together … an ad hoc group.”

That joint committee, which includes other legislators, has held one meeting, for which it posted a paper notice in the state Capitol, Bedke said, but there was no other public notice.

An editorial in the Lewiston Tribune on Friday said, “Legislative staffers have been assigned to help them. Representatives of the State Tax Commission, the Division of Financial Management and the Department of Commerce have briefed them. But you will not find this group listed among the 10 interim committees – dealing with everything from broadband access to urban renewal – on the Legislature’s web page. Nor has there been any advance word, foiling any pesky citizen who would like to attend one of these sessions.”

Idaho Freedom Foundation President Wayne Hoffman, in a Friday column, said he believes the lawmakers have been violating at least the spirit of Idaho’s Open Meeting Law, dubbing the group “the super secret committee dealing with the income tax.”

But Bedke said the Legislature is trying to avoid surprises during the legislative session.

“In the past, we bring out the tax bills right at the last minute, the Senate doesn’t get a chance to see them,” he said.

That’s because all tax legislation must start in the House; in recent years, tax-cut bills have passed the House but died in the Senate.

“I don’t know if we’ll come up with anything,” Bedke said. “There’s no quorums of any of the committees meeting or any of that.”

He added, “It’d be nice to get a set of priorities and work towards accomplishing those, rather than a bunch of varied interests trying to get their pet tax reduction through.”

Stalker law at issue

A Boise cosmetologist twice sought a protection order against a former client who was stalking her, but was rejected because Idaho law allows such orders only against a spouse, relative or current or former romantic partner. Two weeks ago, the ex-client went to the woman’s home and shot her; she suffered serious injuries and is now recovering after being released from the hospital.

Now, Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, is proposing legislation to expand Idaho’s protection order statute to cover those who haven’t been in a domestic relationship with their stalker.  

“I’ve been working on this bill for over a year, and I believe that there is a clear need for stronger protections against people who break the law by stalking or harassing others,” Burgoyne said. “Stalking and harassment are not limited to domestic relationships, and the law needs to recognize this fact.”

Burgoyne called the Boise shooting a tragic incident that highlights the need to change the law. “Of course, no law can stop all stalkers and harassers, but my bill will put these lawbreakers on the radar of law enforcement and the justice system, and give the police and judges leverage in dealing with them,” said Burgoyne, an attorney who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Exemption to rise

Idaho house prices are going up, so the maximum homeowner’s exemption from property taxes for 2016 will rise 5.77 percent to $94,745, a third year of increases after four straight years of decreases. The exemption currently tops out at $89,580.

Idaho allows homeowners to exempt 50 percent of their home’s assessed value from taxes, and the value of up to one acre of land with it, but caps the exemption, with the cap rising or falling each year along with the Idaho House Price Index.

Idaho’s homeowner’s exemption began in 1980 with a maximum of $10,000. It remained at that level until 1983, when it was raised to $50,000 by voter initiative. The 2006 Idaho Legislature raised the exemption to $75,000 and tied the amount for future years to the index.