Analysis: Behind the legal maneuvering in the Reclaim Idaho initiative

In the long list of unexpected news stories from 2020, there’s this: A fight over funding Idaho public schools has reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

But let’s take a break from writing about the legal maneuvers in the Reclaim Idaho K-12 voter initiative lawsuit.

It’s big picture time. It comes down to two fundamental questions: How much should Idaho spend on public schools, and who ought to dig into their pockets to pay? This is a fight we all could have seen coming. Because it’s a fight we’ve been having for years.

The Reclaim Idaho “Invest in Idaho” initiative is, in essence, a reassignment of the education investment. If Reclaim Idaho succeeds in getting the initiative on the November ballot, if it passes, and if the 2021 Legislature enacts it more or less intact — three separate and big “ifs” — the K-12 funding picture changes significantly.

Corporations and wealthy Idahoans would pay directly into a fund for K-12, to the tune of $170 million to $200 million annually. The higher income taxes would affect only Idahoans making more than $250,000 or couples making more than $500,000 — so Reclaim Idaho argues that it is proposing a tax increase for just 5 percent of the population.

The income taxes are somewhat — but not exactly — aligned with Idaho’s ever-growing supplemental property tax levy bill. Idahoans have a proven history of voting for taxes for schools, and the supplemental levies prove it. In 2019-20, Idahoans paid $214 million in voter-passed supplemental levies, nearly twice as much as they paid a decade ago.

So, will the new income taxes replace these property taxes, reducing the reliance on a tax Idahoans have long reviled? Not necessarily.

“It’s possible that property taxes will go down in some districts and that some districts may decide not to run supplemental levies,” Reclaim Idaho says on its own website. “However, there is no guarantee. Districts may decide to continue to raise local levy dollars in order to supplement new state dollars.”

Of course, there’s no way to guarantee what will happen with supplementals, which are on the books in 92 of Idaho’s 115 school districts. There’s no guarantee that the long list of possible uses for the new income taxes — everything from teacher salaries and full-day kindergarten to special education services and art, music and drama programs — would line up with what districts say they need, and what local voters are willing to finance.

And, of course, Reclaim Idaho cannot (and does not) promote its initiative as both a tax shift and a K-12 funding boost. In its Supreme Court filing Tuesday, Reclaim Idaho cited a recent National Education Association report that found Idaho dead last in the nation in per-pupil funding. As Reclaim Idaho Bonner County volunteer leader Linda Larson said in a June 6 court statement, “My team of volunteers understood that the current level of funding for education in Idaho is a crisis.”

And that message was resonating, Reclaim Idaho leaders say.

Before mid-March, and before the group suspended face-to-face petitioning, Reclaim Idaho said it was tapping into a growing cadre of volunteers. The group started in October with 143 volunteers. By March 10, the number had swelled to 546 volunteers, field director Ashley Prince said in a June 5 court statement.

From the middle of February to March 12, Reclaim Idaho’s signature count doubled from 15,000 to more than 30,000, co-founder Luke Mayville said in a June 5 court filing. That left the group more than halfway toward its goal, with an April 30 deadline. As Reclaim Idaho describes it, the only thing that halted the initiative was a global pandemic, which put an end to the signature drive and started a legal battle that has unfolded across three levels of the federal judiciary.

Maybe, indeed, momentum was on Reclaim Idaho’s side. The state’s lawyers have spent some of their time castigating Reclaim Idaho — saying the group’s own procrastination led to the initiative’s demise. But Reclaim Idaho has already shown it knows how to get an initiative on the ballot, as it did with its successful 2018 Medicaid expansion drive. If group leaders say they were right on schedule, who’s to say they’re wrong?

And maybe, once again, Reclaim Idaho had managed to tap into a reservoir of public frustration. After seven years of waiting for the Legislature to move on Medicaid expansion, Idaho voters were more than ready to do it themselves. Are voters just as frustrated about how much Idaho pays for schools — and who pays the taxes that support K-12?

The Reclaim Idaho initiative challenges some very basic notions the Legislature holds about school funding and tax policy. While the Legislature has steadily increased K-12 funding in recent years, lawmakers have turned a blind eye to the increasing reliance on supplemental levies. And many lawmakers   — including House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, perhaps the Legislature’s most powerful voice on tax policy — contend that the state’s corporate and personal income tax rates should be lower, not higher.

Right now, the state and Reclaim Idaho are arguing about the mechanics of online signature gathering, and the First Amendment implications of suspending an initiative during a public health crisis.

But let’s not lose sight of the big-picture issue. The Reclaim Idaho initiative won’t settle the debate over how we pay for schools. But it could put the question into sharper focus.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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