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Opinion >  Column

Eye on Boise: Idaho tax coffers to get a boost from Amazon deal; Otter opposes grocery tax repeal

March 18, 2017 Updated Sat., March 18, 2017 at 11:09 p.m.

Idaho’s state Capitol is shown on Friday, March 17, 2017. With spring in the air, state lawmakers are pushing to wrap up their session within the next week, but there’s still a lack of agreement on issues ranging from taxes to transportation funding. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)
Idaho’s state Capitol is shown on Friday, March 17, 2017. With spring in the air, state lawmakers are pushing to wrap up their session within the next week, but there’s still a lack of agreement on issues ranging from taxes to transportation funding. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)

BOISE – With the news that Amazon will begin collecting state sales tax from Idaho shoppers starting April 1, Idaho’s state general fund coffers stand to gain $15 million to $30 million next year and each year thereafter.

The tax already was due and owing for Idahoans’ online purchases; there just wasn’t an easy way to collect it. Idahoans technically were supposed to be reporting all their purchases and paying the 6 percent tax on their state income tax returns. But many didn’t.

State lawmakers have fought for years about how to collect sales taxes on Idahoans’ online purchases; no legislation ever passed, but the Amazon agreement brings in a big chunk of those taxes.

Otter opposes

grocery tax repeal

Gov. Butch Otter sent a letter to Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill late last week opposing the repeal of Idaho’s 6 percent sales tax on groceries. Otter wrote that he wanted to “clearly state my opposition,” and wrote, “People buy groceries in good times and bad, so the tax provides a steady source of revenue for the essential services of state government. As revenue fluctuates from less-stable sources it could be more difficult to fund our commitments.”

The governor wrote, “Our current system of grocery tax credits provides relief to individuals purchasing groceries while providing a steadier stream of revenue. I see no reason to change our current system and I oppose efforts to do so.”

Keough: ‘It’s a

user-pay thing’

When a sweeping transportation funding bill calling for hundreds of millions in bonding, local-option taxes, funding shifts and an array of other moves to fund improvements to Idaho roads fell one vote short in a Senate committee on Thursday, Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, was among the “no” votes. She has long been an advocate of improving Idaho roads.

Here’s why: Keough said Idaho’s road system should remain “user pay,” and gas taxes – which traditionally have funded Idaho roads – should be increased if roads need improvements, rather than dipping into state general funds. That’s also been Gov. Butch Otter’s position.

“Schools don’t have a gas tax, Health and Welfare doesn’t have a gas tax, DEQ doesn’t have a gas tax,” said Keough, who chairs the Idaho Legislature’s joint budget committee. “They don’t have a tool like the gas tax. Taking the money out of the general fund diminishes the potential funding for every other agency.”

Keough said she wants action on transportation, but, “It just needs to be a more open and inclusive process for everybody.”

“We certainly have a need, and we ought to address the need. But I think we should start the first week of the session in the germane committees – everybody put the ideas on the table with pieces of legislation that the public can see and comment on.” She said people in her district – the northernmost in the state – couldn’t get to Boise with less than 24 hours notice to comment on the proposals.

She also raised constitutional concerns about the big funding bill on two grounds: That it could violate the single-subject rule by incorporating so many different proposals; and that revenue measures, such as the bill’s provisions on exempting road materials from sales tax and granting local-option tax authority, are required to start in the House, rather than in the Senate. In past years, she said, “There was foot-stomping” over that point.

Letting sunshine in

The Idaho House has voted 70-0 in favor of the bill to expand the Idaho Open Meeting law to include boards, commissions or councils created by executive order.

“We go to great lengths as public officials … that we hold open meetings,” said Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona. “We are subject to the Open Meetings Law in Idaho. Sometimes it’s not very comfortable, Mr. Speaker, to do all of our business in public, but it’s the right thing to do.”

“We’ve always assumed that virtually everything that government does in the state of Idaho is open to the public, and always operated with that assumption,” he said. “However, we discovered that there is just a little flaw in our law, that unwittingly exempts certain agencies that are created by executive order from the Open Meetings Law. It wasn’t intended to be that way, should not be that way.”

The most common reaction Loertscher said he’s gotten to the proposal has been, “ ‘You mean, it’s not that way?’ This corrects something that needs to be done.”

With that, every member of the House endorsed the bill, sending it to the Senate side.

Coincidentally, the House vote came during Sunshine Week, an annual event organized by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the American Society of News Editors that celebrates openness in government and access to public information.

Climate change hearing

The biggest crowd of the legislative session turned out last week, and it was for an informational hearing on climate change. Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, wasn’t able to persuade a House committee to consider introducing her bill. An estimated 650 people flocked to the Lincoln Auditorium, the Capitol’s largest hearing room, and filled four overflow rooms in addition, to hear speakers address how fire, drought and future climate changes will impact Idaho businesses, farmers and citizens.

Mandatory minimums

Another big informational hearing last week was on doing away with Idaho’s mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking. An array of judges, prosecutors, offenders, advocates and more testified. It turns out that by defining “trafficking” offenses solely on the basis of the amount of drugs the offender possesses, Idaho is locking up heroin addicts for up to 10 years on trafficking charges for possessing what amounts to a three-day supply of the drug for their own personal use.

Bipartisan legislation to eliminate the mandatory minimum sentences and instead give judges full discretion over how such offenders are sentenced has been introduced, but hasn’t advanced this year.

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