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Eye on Boise: Otter welcomes debate over competing tax-cut bills

Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter delivers his State of the State address inside the house chambers at the state Capitol building, Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, in Boise, Idaho. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger) ORG XMIT: IDOK101 (Otto Kitsinger / AP)

Two alternative tax-cut plans – competing with Gov. Butch Otter’s big income tax-cut proposal, which already has passed the House – were introduced in the Idaho Legislature last week, and Otter says he’s fine with that.

“Now we’ve got a lot of things to talk about, a lot of different ways to go,” Otter said. “Given the opportunity, I assure you the governor’s office will defend our leadership bill that did pass the House 59-11, and is in the Senate now. But I think all those tax bills … (will) probably have a hearing – I hope they do. And then we’ll see what the results are.”

Otter’s $200 million-plus tax-cut bill, which passed the House on a straight party-line vote with all Republicans voting yes and all Democrats voting no, and is co-sponsored by members of House and Senate GOP leadership, would make a series of changes, including:

Conforming Idaho’s income tax code to recently approved federal changes, including the doubling of the standard deduction and the removal of dependent exemptions.

Offsetting those changes – which would cost Idaho taxpayers nearly $100 million more in state taxes next year – with additional tax cuts: Lowering all personal and corporate income tax rates by 0.475 percent, or $159.6 million; and creating a new, nonrefundable Idaho child tax credit of $130 per child, cutting another $42 million.

A competing proposal from Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, would couple grocery tax elimination with big corporate and individual income tax cuts; he’s calling it the “BIG Tax Relief Plan,” for businesses, individuals and groceries. It wouldn’t conform to federal tax code changes, leaving that for another bill, and would add up to $264.7 million in tax cuts.

The other competing proposal comes from Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, chairman of the Senate Tax Committee, and he’s said he plans to hold up the governor’s bill until his own version gets a hearing. Starting with the governor’s bill as a template, it would keep the dependent exemption, rather than adding a new child tax credit, and lower tax rates in each bracket by slightly less, a 0.3 percent cut, to make up the difference and provide more tax relief to Idaho families.

Johnson’s bill would provide about $9 million less in net tax relief than the governor’s plan, but more of it would go to Idaho families, while the governor’s bill directs most relief to businesses and top earners.

Otter said, “I thought the House did a terrific job with our tax bill, and now it’s in the Senate. I fully expected competing pieces of legislation. It’s pretty obvious to me that we can only afford one of those.”

Otter: ‘I deserved 30 phone calls’

Asked about rumors that he’s holding a grudge against what’s being called the “Dirty 30” – the 30 state lawmakers who unsuccessfully sued the governor last year to try to overturn his veto of legislation repealing Idaho’s sales tax on groceries – Otter offered some revealing insights.

“I have had many of those folks approach me and try to explain, ‘Governor, I’m in a border district with a state that doesn’t have a sales tax, so I felt that I needed to support the sales tax repealer, including going to court.’ And every one of ’em that have approached me, I said, ‘Listen, I’m a big boy and I understand that. But I deserved a phone call. You should have at least called me. When I vetoed one of your bills, I called you and said, ‘I’m going to veto this bill unless you come down and talk me out of it.’ But I deserved 30 phone calls, and I didn’t get one.”

“I don’t think there’s any hard feelings,” Otter said.

But he said now the Legislature faces a new challenge as a result of that Idaho Supreme Court decision: All bills now must be presented to the governor, for his signature or veto, before lawmakers adjourn sine die – without a date, meaning they’re done for the session. “We’ve got to figure it out,” he said. “If they’ve got to get me every bill before they sine die, into my office, there’s got to be hustle.”

Trespassing would be felony

Legislation proposed by Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, chairwoman of the House Agricultural Affairs Committee, cleared the committee on a 14-1 vote last week after a lengthy hearing, though committee members expressed concerns about its legality and the speed with which it’s being approved. It would make trespassing a felony on a third offense, while making other changes to what Boyle called Idaho’s “patchwork” of laws on trespassing. It also would change a requirement that property owners mark their property every 660 feet with orange paint, which Boyle described as “pretty unsightly” and “very onerous.” Instead, markings would be required at property boundaries, access points and streams.

Michael Kane, lobbyist for the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association and Idaho Association of Counties, told the committee the bill, as written, might be indefensible in court and is possibly unconstitutional. Idaho prosecutors also raised concerns about the measure.

But the only “no” vote in committee came from House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise.

Boyle noted that more than half of Idaho’s land is publicly owned. “There are plenty of opportunities to fish and hunt without trespassing on private land,” she said.

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