Getting any initiative on the ballot is so difficult, that when successful, politicians know there is significant bi-partisan support for it. If the Quality Education Act passed, it could increase disgruntled voter turnout and hurt some incumbents in the November general election.
The solution? Call the legislature into a special session and pass a law that preempts the Quality Education Act, enables the majority party to take credit for increased education funding, lowers corporate taxes for their major contributors, and mail rebate checks to people just before they start casting their votes.
There was no legitimate emergency or need to create this law via a special session. There was a political emergency. This bill could have easily been considered just a few months later when the 2023 legislative session begins in January. There would be more time for public input, deliberation and debate without incurring the additional taxpayer expense of a special session. Action could then be taken by members of a newly elected legislature, not the out-going lame duck legislature.
But I don’t get to control the process. The special session was called and a bill was put before me and the legislature for its consideration.
The special session bill (H0001) does several things:
- Allocates $500 million for one-time rebate checks, 10% of state tax paid for 2021, or $300 per individual tax return ($600 for a joint return) – whichever is greater.
- Replaces the graduated personal income tax with a single flat tax of 5.8%.
- Reduces the corporate income tax rate to 5.8%. A corporation will now be taxed at a rate lower than the 6.0% sales tax people living on a fixed income pay for groceries.
- Allocates $330 million annually for a K-12 public school fund starting in FY’2024. It is my understanding that these funds cannot be used for facilities, which means you may still be voting on school bonds and levies nearly every year.
- Allocates $80 million annually to an “in-demand careers fund” starting in FY’2024. This money can be used for career-technical education programs, community colleges or four-year colleges and universities (subject to appropriation by the legislature).
- Places an “advisory question” on the November ballot, asking voters if they approve or disapprove of this bill (page 14, lines 6-34). The stated purpose of this question is to “guide the Legislature as to whether the ongoing elements of this bill shall continue.” There is no legitimate need to put this confusing, non-binding question on the ballot.
- Establishes January 3, 2023 as the effective date of this bill. This date was deliberately chosen to supersede and nullify the Quality Education Act ballot initiative which, if it passed, had an effective date of January 1, 2023.
The justification for this bill (and thus the special session) is based on two false premises: 1) it would fight inflation, and 2) the state had a genuine $2 billion surplus.
The bill starts by saying “gas, groceries and other necessities (are) out of reach for many Idahoans” due to inflation (housing being one of the other necessities). This bill does nothing to address the impact of inflation on gas, groceries and housing. Had the bill reduced the gas tax, eliminated the grocery tax and paid off school bonds, then it could legitimately claim to provide a significant, continuous inflation-fighting benefit for every citizen. The on-going high cost of these necessities will continue long after a one-time rebate check has been spent.
Then there is the so-called “surplus.”
If you didn’t pay your mortgage for the last 12 months, you don’t have a surplus at the end of the year. You have an unpaid financial obligation. The legislature can only claim to have a real surplus after it first meets its constitutional and fiscal responsibilities. Here are just a few of those financial obligations the legislature has yet to meet:
- $1.2 billion backlog in delayed and ignored K-12 school building maintenance.
- $500 million backlog in basic road and bridge maintenance (this doesn’t include additional funds needed for new construction to handle growth).
- $500 million for a new state prison (plus millions more for adequate staffing, maintenance and upgrades to existing facilities).
- Hundreds of millions of dollars for adequate EMS, mental health and other vital services.
Despite being aware of the $2+ billion in financial obligations mentioned above, the legislature gave away $1.1 billion in income tax breaks and refund checks this year alone ($600 million in March and $500 million in this special session bill). The $2+ billion in fiscal responsibilities still needs to be paid – and you’ll likely be paying for it with higher property taxes and rents (via school bonds and levies), the gas tax, the grocery tax, increases in college tuitions and fees, and reduced state services.
There was also a bit of sleight-of-hand that took place the day before the session that further undermined the supposed inflation-fighting purpose of this bill. The original version of this bill included a 3% annual inflation increase to the $330 million allocated to public education. This 3% increase was removed from the final version of the bill at the insistence of majority party leaders. This ensures that inflation will diminish the impact of this education appropriation over time. So much for fighting inflation . . .
Finally, there’s a political reality that could turn the entire education portion of this bill into fool’s gold. The legislature can pass a bill next year that takes away this new money for education. Governor Little was asked to publicly declare that he would veto any such attempt by the legislature. He refused to do so.
I have often voted against bills with good-sounding titles but had unintended consequences or poison pills buried within them. This bill was a bit different. There are several portions of this bill that are problematic, such as:
- changing the fundamental structure of state income tax policy with only one day of deliberation, which is reckless
- refusing to allocate any of the so-called surplus towards the state’s substantial fiscal obligations, which is irresponsible
- calling an emergency session of the legislature for this purpose, which was an abuse of power.
On the other hand, there were two portions of this bill that addressed the top two issues that thousands of voters have told me concern them the most:
- increased funding for education, and
- keeping up with the cost of living.
This bill helps better fund education and the larger, one-time rebate will provide at least some relief for people struggling to make ends meet – especially those living on a fixed income.
I voted for this bill. The bill is far from perfect, the process was terribly flawed and there’s no guarantee that the education funding portion will survive next year’s legislative session. But I can’t control any of that. I have to vote on what’s put in front of me. In the case of this bill, I believe the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
My job is to represent my district, not myself. That’s why I knock on doors year round, every year. It is the best way I know how to learn what my constituents care about. There will always be a broad range of opinions on any given issue, and it is impossible to agree with everyone on every issue all the time. However, after having spoken with thousands of voters at their door since the 2022 legislative session ended in March, I believe my vote is aligned with the overall concerns expressed to me by most of my Republican, Democratic and Independent constituents alike.