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Move to limit local bond, levy elections clears House panel on party-line vote

Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, pitches her legislation to limit local bond and tax levy elections to the House State Affairs Committee on Friday, Feb. 16, 2018 at the Idaho state Capitol. (Betsy Z. Russell / The Spokesman-Review)

School districts and other local governments that fail to pass a tax would have to wait a year before asking voters again, under a bill that cleared a state House committee Friday on a party-line vote.

The legislation, sponsored by North Idaho Rep. Heather Scott, would not allow follow-up bond or levy tax votes for a year even if the proposal were changed from what voters rejected.

Representatives of the state’s associations of school boards, school superintendents, cities and libraries all spoke against the bill, saying it would limit voters’ choices. A handful of people spoke in favor of it, including a former board member of a Kuna taxing district who said he faced a recall election after he opposed a repeat of a tax levy vote. “This is an example of how taxing districts ignore the will of the voters,” Michael Law told the committee.

Scott, R-Blanchard, said she wants to target “aggressive taxing districts” that repeatedly go back to voters until their proposals pass.

“What if your political opponent could challenge you every three months?” she asked the representatives on the House State Affairs Committee. “It’s just something to think about.”

Jerry Mason, a Coeur d’Alene attorney who represents the Association of Idaho Cities, said its board voted unanimously to oppose the bill.

“Idaho has a very citizen-involved system of funding local governments,” Mason said. “Voters are asked to make decisions on a variety of questions. If the system is as it is, requiring voter participation, the option of elections should be readily available for citizens to express their opinions.”

“Requiring voter approval and then denying the opportunity for an election is just counterproductive,” Mason said.

He noted that bond issues require a 66 2/3 percent supermajority, and retries typically occur when strong majorities support the move but the margin falls slightly below the supermajority.

“I would encourage you to trust local voters and local officials,” Mason said. “They’re closest to the matters to be decided, and they’re using the procedures prescribed by this Legislature.”

Until a decade ago, Idaho allowed local elections to occur on virtually any date. Then the Legislature passed an election consolidation law requiring all elections to be on one of four dates: the general election date, the primary election date or two alternative dates in March and August.

Scott noted that school and other taxing districts use tax money to hold elections.

The bill “will prevent these aggressive taxing districts from repeatedly running their bonds or levies just to see if it’ll pass,” she said. “They would be likely to only ask what is needed, instead of what they want.”

With the departure of Rep. Paulette Jordan, D-Plummer, who resigned to run for governor, Rep. Elaine Smith, D-Pocatello, is the sole Democrat on the House State Affairs Committee. She cast the only “no” vote against moving the bill forward.

“Well, I’m looking at this, and it takes two-thirds to pass a bond,” she said. “ It means a third of the people can stop it, which is a minority. And I understand what a minority is, because right now I’m one versus 13 on this committee.”

Mary Dewalt, director of Ada Community Libraries, told the committee that the decision to hold an election should be a local, not a state, issue.

“Having the chance to vote frequently is actually a privilege and a right,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that some people see it as a burden that wears you out, because it really should be seen as an opportunity to engage.”

Phil Haunschild, of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, told the committee presidential elections can be close, but there’s no revote for four years.

“Just because these bonds or levy elections are sometimes close, that doesn’t mean that we should allow them to come back again,” he said.

Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, suggested sending the bill to the House’s amending order for technical corrections and also to change it from a full 12-month ban to an 11-month ban. That way, he said, if a levy failed during, say, a Nov. 10 general election, it could come up again in the following year’s general election.

When a bill is sent to the House’s amending order, any representative may propose amendments.

Scott said she supported Luker’s motion to amend the bill, “so it will be technically correct.”