Guest Editorials: Views of Other Democrats

December 3, 2019: Income tax cuts hurt Idaho

by Idaho State Senator Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, and Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, Minority Leader of the Idaho House.

When the Legislature orders counties to carry out state functions but fails to provide the money to do so, local property taxpayers pay the price. As a result, residential property taxes are sky-high in many counties, and citizens are demanding relief.

The inability of the state to pay these costs stems from its long history of cutting state income taxes to primarily benefit the wealthy. In depriving the state of revenue to pay its bills, they’ve forced costs on to local governments and school districts and increased property taxes on all of us. Although some state politicians like to talk about their cuts coming to a billion dollars over the years, they don’t seem to acknowledge their role in increasing our property taxes.

For example, the 2018 income tax cut is costing the state at least $129 million in revenue each year. Such cuts have prevented the state from properly funding the schools and have resulted in property tax override levies that will total $214 million this year.

Income tax cuts also deprive the state of the revenue it needs to house a significant number of its prisoners. Instead, a good number are in county jails, with Ada County now having about 326 of them. The Ada County jail has become so crowded it is in violation of mandatory jail accreditation standards, with some prisoners sleeping on the floor. Although a state prisoner costs the average county $86.55 per day, a state prisoner costs some counties as much $112 per day and Ada County about $102 per day. The state only pays $55 per day for the prisoner’s first seven days and $75 per day thereafter. Consequently, Ada County is forced to subsidize the state prison system by $1.6 to $1.8 million per year, and that doesn’t even consider that the state should, but doesn’t, pay a proportionate share of the cost to build and expand the jail. One wonders if Canyon County might have been able to solve its continuing jail crowding problem many years ago if the state had simply paid the full cost of housing its prisoners.

And jails are just one of the state’s unpaid bills. The Legislature’s total unfunded county mandates are in the many millions of dollars per year. For example, county property taxpayers subsidize each sheriff issued driver’s license by $3; and counties must spend $12 million a year on indigent health care, $8 million a year on involuntary mental health commitments and $32 million a year on public defenders. The list of unfunded state mandates goes on and on.

Another reason residential property taxes are sky-rocketing is that the Legislature significantly reduced the homestead exemption in 2016, thereby shifting a significant amount of the property tax burden from business to residential property. Unfortunately, efforts to repeal this shift were blocked in the Idaho House last session.

Rather than repeal the property tax shift and require the state to pay its own bills, some inside and outside the Legislature say local governments have caused the property tax crisis by spending too much. They want to lower local government budget caps still further by barring any budget growth based on new construction. New construction is, however, a factor the law expressly allows to cover budget costs stemming from population and economic growth. That growth must pay for itself. Pretending it isn’t there, and that it doesn’t impose significant costs on local communities, won’t make it so. Arbitrarily lowering budget caps will either force cuts in public safety and other services or force overrides, which will mean no real property tax relief.

When it comes to property tax relief, the Legislature’s priorities should be to pay the state’s bills and repeal the property tax shift, not cut vital local services.

November 8, 2019:  What Risch didn’t say

by Betty Hansen Richardson, former U.S. Attorney for Idaho

A few days ago, I posted that I had received an invitation to participate in Sen. Jim Risch’s tele-town hall to be held from 7-8 p.m. on Wednesday November 7. I was told I would receive a call from the Senator’s office, and all I needed to do to participate was to stay on the line. The call is now history, and I thought those of you who missed it might like to know a little about it.

This was the second Risch “tele-town hall,” in which I’ve participated. The script was much the same. The senator began the call touting his work on the Women’s Business Center, agricultural issues and energy-related issues involving the Idaho National Laboratory. Then a pleasant voiced person named Marty, who facilitated the call, asked the senator to talk about impeachment.

In response, the senator gave his listeners a self-styled history lesson on impeachment. That was all well and good; however, he dropped any charade of objectivity by whining about the party-line vote in the House of Representatives and complaining that the House was “operating in secret chambers.”

Risch did not acknowledge that Republicans who sit on the germane committees were allowed to fully participate in the proceedings. He did not mention that the transcripts of the depositions are being made public, and he did not mention that public hearings will begin next week. He concluded by griping that “impeachment is truly sucking the oxygen out of the air. We have a lot to do and there are matters on the back burner.”

Of course he made no mention of the fact that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to allow the Senate to consider a couple hundred bills passed by the House. I would posit that it is McConnell who is “truly sucking the oxygen out” of the legislative air.

Then it was time for the first call.

Imagine my surprise when the first caller to ask a question was one of the same people who got to ask a question on the last call. What are the chances that the same Idahoan would get picked twice by the Risch staff to ask his question?

The caller asked whether and when the Keystone Pipeline would be built. Risch assured the caller that the pipeline was happening. He then touted the fact that the U.S. is now the largest oil producing nation in the world. He did not acknowledge the impact that fossil fuels have on our environment nor did he say one word about alternative energy development.

The next caller asked about the senator’s view on tariffs. After calling himself a “free-trader,” Risch lauded the president’s “re-negotiation” of NAFTA and his determination to hold “China’s feet to the fire.” On both counts, Risch said he and some of his colleagues at first “cringed” when they heard of the president’s actions but — by golly — it turns out the president was right. The president, it seems, likes bi-lateral agreements better than multi-lateral agreements, and Risch is just fine with that.

The next caller asked about the Colombia River Treaty. Risch said that the treaty was intended to address two concerns — flood control and generating electricity. He did not want the treaty to address salmon.

The next caller asked about cyber-security. Risch acknowledged the growing threat of cyber attacks and noted that a lot of money had been allocated to fight such attacks. He did not mention the fact that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to allow the Senate to vote on House passed legislation to protect our 2020 elections.

The next call came from someone who expressed concern about the national debt. Risch gave what he called a “mini-tutorial” on spending, complaining that three-fourths of our spending goes to what Risch called “entitlements” — things like Social Security, Medicare, and Veterans’ Benefits. He told his listeners that these programs are causing the problem and that “spending has to be reformed.” I believe that translates to a desire to cut spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Veterans’ Benefits, but the term “reformed,” obscures that intent.

Risch did not mention that, since passage of the president’s tax relief act for the wealthy and corporations, the deficit had ballooned, there were few signs of investment but plenty of stock buy-backs, special interest breaks and loopholes. He also did not mention that factories and jobs are more likely to go overseas.

The next caller asked the senator to give his views on “sanctuary cities.” Risch declared he was a “hawk” when it comes to border security, that a nation can’t have control of its sovereignty unless it has control of its borders. He supports the president in all things border-related. He did not mention the president’s family separation policy or the practice of housing children in cages.

I had to take another call so I wasn’t able to listen to the last 10 minutes of the Risch call. I doubt I missed much. It seems I learned more about Risch’s stands on the issues by considering what he avoided discussing than what he chose to talk about.

November 6, 2019: Rural teachers need debt relief

by Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, District 26, and Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D- Boise,  District 18

The average teacher graduating with their bachelor’s degree is taking on over $26,000 in student loan debt. If a teacher decides that they want to go on to pursue a master’s degree, there is significantly more debt. With those levels of student debt, a brand-new Idaho teacher looks at payments between $200-$400 a month. On a salary of around $40,000 a year, Idaho’s educators are often working 2 or 3 jobs just to make loan payments on time. It’s no surprise that teachers leave Idaho for better opportunities in other states.
 

Unfortunately, our rural school districts are feeling the impact the most. Rural schools make up about 75% of all Idaho’s districts and most of them are struggling to fill teaching positions. Rural districts have to get creative to make sure that students have a teacher in the classroom by doing things like allowing unlicensed teachers in the classroom. Parents in rural districts have no choice but to send their kids to schools with teachers who are not certified to teach and may be lacking necessary credentials.

 

For the last several sessions, Idaho Democrats have introduced legislation that would give student loan relief to rural teachers. It hasn’t made it to the desk of the Governor because the legislature has refused to make this necessary investment in Idaho’s teachers. We are committed to bringing this legislation back again this year because our rural schools need this option.

Public schools are the cornerstone of Idaho’s rural communities, but they have been left behind by the legislature. It’s unreasonable and shortsighted to keep asking highly educated individuals to work in rural schools when the best we have to offer is the need to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Many of our teachers have been willing to take this deal because they are so dedicated to educating Idaho’s youth, but it is not sustainable. Every year, we lose more and more teachers to states that are willing to show educators the appreciation that they deserve.
 

We cannot have an educated workforce, a thriving economy, or a successful state if we do not provide our students a quality education. Idaho’s teachers and students are our most valuable asset. Our rural communities are counting on us.