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Tuesday, September 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  ID Government

Eye on Boise: New tax commission chief comes from the business world

In this Jan. 3, 2019 photo, Idaho Gov.-elect Brad Little answers a reporter's question at the State Capitol building in Boise, Idaho. During a break in the first meeting of Little’s new education improvement task force last week, a task force member talked about the risk of making cuts to teacher salaries. (Otto Kitsinger / Associated Press)
In this Jan. 3, 2019 photo, Idaho Gov.-elect Brad Little answers a reporter's question at the State Capitol building in Boise, Idaho. During a break in the first meeting of Little’s new education improvement task force last week, a task force member talked about the risk of making cuts to teacher salaries. (Otto Kitsinger / Associated Press)
By Betsy Z. Russell Idaho Press

BOISE – Tom Harris came from the business world, not the tax world, to his new post as chairman of the Idaho State Tax Commission.

But the former longtime president of Western States Equipment – he was there for 45 years – isn’t planning a big revamp for the agency. “I hope I’m bright enough to say that state government shouldn’t be like business,” Harris said. “A lot of people say we need to make state government more like business, and I don’t believe that’s the case.”

“There are some things that are every bit the same, and it’s the human capital, the people,” he said. “You get results … out of having highly engaged employees that want to be here. So it’s critical that we do that.”

He added, “The other piece is there’s a lot more rules, regulations, statutes.”

Harris replaced Ken Roberts, a former state legislator. The state’s other tax commissioners include a former county commissioner and two former state lawmakers, one of whom is a former deputy county assessor.

Harris said he’d planned to spend his first two or three months getting a sense for the people and the work at the Tax Commission before considering his vision for the agency, which has about 460 employees, compared to the 850 he oversaw in his previous position. But after starting in May, he discovered the strategy for the department was due to the administration on July 1.

“So we rallied 13 leaders of this organization and … we spent all week working on vision, mission, values,” Harris said. “I did a lot of that where I was from.” The result was a focus on giving citizens confidence in the agency’s work, he said.

Harris said his biggest surprise so far has been the quality of the employees. “Being in private business, you always hear, maybe, this disparity between public sector folks and private business folks. I would tell you, from what I’ve observed in this department, there really isn’t a difference. … It’s just a good cross-section of Idaho folks.”

“You can’t get the mission of any organization done without the right people, engaged people, that want to be there, that believe in what you do,” he said. “This is no different.”

Fact check: True

During a break in the first meeting of Gov. Brad Little’s new education improvement task force last week, task force member Rep. Mat Erpelding said that in the recession of 2010-11, “We cut starting teacher salaries down to below $30,000, and then it took us 10 years to get them back to a reasonable middle-class job. In two years of cutting budgets, we could set ourselves back 20 years. I hope we have a conversation about weathering recessions.”

I decided to do a little research, with the help of legislative librarian Eric Glover and state Department of Education spokesman Scott Phillips, to see where the state’s minimum teacher salaries have gone over the years; while school districts generally set teacher pay levels, the minimum teacher salary is set by law.

Sure enough, as Erpelding alluded to, Idaho’s minimum teacher salary in fiscal year 2008 was $31,750, according to state statutes, but amid recession-driven budget cuts, it had dropped to just $29,655 in both 2010 and 2011. It was set at $30,000 by the Legislature for 2012, but after voters rejected Proposition 3, repealing the teacher salary portion of the Luna Laws, it bumped up to $30,500.

It stayed there in 2013, and went up to $31,000 in fiscal year 2014; $31,750 in 2015; $32,700 in 2016; $33,400 in 2017; $34,600 in 2018; and $35,800 this year.

Under legislation championed by Little and passed by the Legislature this year, it’ll rise to $38,500 next year and then $40,000 the following year, fiscal year 2021.

My thanks to Glover and Phillips; it took going through 71 pages of current and past Idaho code sections to pin all this down.

First lady lauds Idaho Public TV

Idaho First Lady Teresa Little sent out a newsletter last week headlined “Explore Idaho Public Television!” that celebrates her and her family’s long support of the statewide public broadcasting network, lauds IdahoPTV’s numerous education initiatives, and urges Idahoans to take part.

“Our family has long been viewers, fans and supporters of Idaho Public Television,” she wrote. “I was pleased to serve on the Friends Board of Directors in the ‘80s. I remember the experience of going ‘on air’ during festival pledge drive made me quite nervous. Our sons Adam and David were very young at the time. They happily watched with my mom from my parents’ home in Weiser. They phoned in a pledge and listened to hear their names announced on television.”

She noted that on June 20, Idaho Public Television will host an “Educate and Celebrate” event at its studios in Boise. “I highly encourage you to explore Idaho Public Television in all its dimensions,” the first lady wrote. “Discover something exciting and new by attending the June 20 workshop, visiting the website, reading Channels program guide, watching a new program, visiting the Learning Ecosystem, downloading a learning app, volunteering, or donating. It will enhance your life and the lives of those you care about. It does ours.”

You can see her newsletters online at her website, gov.idaho.gov/our-governor/ first-lady-teresa-soulen-little/. This was the second newsletter she’s published; the first, sent out in late March, focused on the “Idaho Women 100 campaign.” a joint effort of the Idaho State Historical Society and Idaho Women in Leadership to mark the 2020 national centennial anniversary of women achieving the right to vote.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise Bureau Chief for the Idaho Press, covering Boise and Idaho Capitol news.

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