After two months of behind-the-scenes discussions, the local-option tax debate went public and became testy.
The House Revenue and Taxation Committee voted this morning to introduce a proposed constitutional amendment to allow local-option sales and use taxes. The vote fell along party lines, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed, and foreshadowed the debate to come.
The talking points:
• Why a constitutional amendment? Critics have a good point. If state law already allows some limited local-option taxing authority, for jails or resort cities, what's different here?
"Amending the Constitution shouldn't be done lightly," said Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello. "It ought to be done sparingly."
The amendment's chief architect, Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star, uses an always-handy buzzword, "sideboards," to justify the amendment. Addressing local-option taxes in the Constitution — requiring a two-thirds majority for a voter-approved tax, and allowing local-option votes only on November general election dates — protects the taxpayers.
But let's not lose sight of the politics. This push for a constitutional amendment is also about cobbling together votes in a conservative House of Representatives. Some lawmakers might not support a bill allowing local option — but might be willing to lock restrictive local-option language into the Constitution. I won't go so far as to call that friviolous tinkering with the Constitution, but it is, at least in part, politically motivated. That should give all legislators pause.
• Why county by county? Here's a not-really-hypothetical illustration of how the amendment works. Say Ada and Canyon counties decide to run an amendment to pay for some roadwork and public transportation. Say Ada County votes yes to raise its sales tax, with a 71 percent majority. Say the vote in Canyon County is 62 percent yes. In that case, the sales tax would go into effect in Ada County, with the money spent on Ada County transportation projects.
By the way, I didn't pull those vote numbers out of a hat. That's exactly how the vote broke down 10 months ago, when voters approved a new community college district. The college became reality because the combined vote in Ada and Canyon counties exceeded the two-thirds threshold.
Republicans say an amendment would protect taxpayers in smaller counties. Said JoAn Wood, a Republican from Rigby, one county but only 10 minutes removed from the larger city of Idaho Falls, "The little counties are afraid of the big counties. ... We're here to protect all the people."
A reasonable sentiment — and another reason why some rural lawmakers prefer this amendment. But let's also remember the one issue that drives the local-option debate: transportation needs in the Treasure Valley. A regional problem with little regard for county lines.
This is the same House that had the good sense last week to allow the state to address one of the effects of a dysfunctional transportation system — air pollution — with regional emissions tests. Why would it make sense to try to solve a region's gridlock on a county-by-county basis?
If transit backers want to revisit the jursidictional issues later, that's always a possibility, said Mark Warbis, a spokesman for Gov. Butch Otter. The governor supports the amendment because it is the one way to move the local-option issue ahead this session. "We can talk about those other things down the road," Warbis said Wednesday.
I'm skeptical. Everybody knows that a local-option amendment would be hard to amend again; after all, that's why some conservatives like it so much. If a local-option amendment gets on the books, this is the instrument local leaders will have to use for years to come.
• A delay tactic? Another allegation from the Democrats. They say the amendment is just a way to scuttle the local-option bill preferred by transit advocates.
Moyle — never exactly the quiet, reserved type — reacted angrily this morning, saying he's been working with local-option supporters through most of the session. "Quite frankly, we thought we had an agreement."
So did Otter. In a meeting with the Statesman's editorial board Friday, he thought he had a deal with local leaders — or at least was close to one.
But if there's no deal now, here how this could play out. The Legislature passes an amendment — ostensibly to allow locals to raise taxes to address transit and road needs. Local leaders are at best lukewarm to the amendment, or they're outright opposed. The amendment goes to voters in November, and nobody's really campaigning for the need for new taxes.
What are the odds of the amendment passing? And if it fails, what are the odds of any lawmaker taking another run at local option for years to come? His or her colleagues could say they've been there and done that — and they'd have a right to.
Expect to hear all these arguments in the coming days. This morning, we heard just the first run-through.