Senator Rice proposes ending school levies

I hope you had the chance to read Betsy Z. Russell’s Oct. 29 article “Senate tax chair pitches plan to phase out school supplemental levies.” 

And I hope you realize just how insulting Sen. Jim Rice’s proposal is to every Idahoan who cares about Idaho schools.  

The Senator is proposing exchanging $180 million in current sales tax revenue for voters’ rights to pass supplemental levies for Idaho schools. Current levies totalling $216 million a year would be phased out.  

In other words, the state is sitting on $180 million in revenue that could go to schools, but Rice wants it to go to schools only if voters give up their only way of supporting schools when the legislature doesn’t. 

As Scott McIntosh said in a recent Idaho Statesman editorial, “A proposal by a state legislator to phase out the use of supplemental levies by school districts represents yet another example of how some Republican legislators want to shut voters up.”     

Idaho’s estimated per pupil spending is $7,833 per student. The national average is $14,243 per student–over $6,000 more. That $180 million that the legislature is sitting on would add just $600 per student. 

But Sen. Rice isn’t suggesting we increase spending on schools–he wants a dollar-for-dollar exchange for property tax levies. He’s totally satisfied with Idaho schools surviving with just 55%  of the average funds states spend on their students.  

Worse, Sen. Rice isn’t offering any credible guarantee that legislators won’t cut the general fund allotment to schools in exchange. No, Rice has “faith” that the members of his budget committee wouldn’t cut the education budget for “it would probably get them voted out of office.”  

That fear didn’t prevent the legislature from cutting the BSU budget by over $400,000 this year or turning down a $6 million grant for early childhood education. If Idahoans were willing to give up that reassuring “R” by a candidate’s name, they would have already voted out legislators who’ve reserved $26 million a month in revenue from online sales tax purchases out of the reach of schools or any other general fund program. 

Last year the legislature voted $400 million for various tax cuts and left a surplus of $600 million when they adjourned.

The schools aren’t being starved because Idaho is too poor. It’s the choice of a majority of our current legislators.   

Set high goals. Underfund schools. Drive out experienced teachers. Complain because schools aren’t meeting goals. 

But Rice doesn’t pretend to be concerned about the underfunding of schools.  HIs aim is to cut property taxes–at least in districts that currently have levies. 

The legislature didn’t think through their last plan to cut property taxes . They cut the amount that cities and counties could collect from new growth to 8%. Legislators apparently didn’t see that limiting funds for new police, fire fighters, roads, lighting, etc.would make cities see a need to cut growth–just at a time when Idaho needs more low income housing.  

Legislators did make a small increase in the homeowners’ exemption–which they funded not by using the millions set aside for tax cuts, but by kicking many poor, elderly homeowners off a ‘circuit breaker’ program aimed at letting them keep their homes. That way their $26 million a month reserve for lowering taxes could keep growing.  

But next week members will reconvene and, most likely, add another $2 million to the $4 million they passed earlier this year to handle lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of laws they’ve passed. 

And a few more teachers will start checking for jobs out of state.

Published by Judy Ferro

Judy Ferro is communication director for the 2C Dems and a columnist for the Idaho Press.

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