Analysis: Reclaim Idaho’s referendum on K-12 comes closer to fruition

It’s not official, but the Reclaim Idaho K-12 initiative appears to be headed to the November ballot.

If that happens, it would be like any local bond issue or school levy election — but much bigger. It could force a high-stakes statewide debate about taxes and education funding.

While Reclaim Idaho co-founder Luke Mayville said his group’s petition drive isn’t done yet, he didn’t hesitate to talk about the significance of a statewide debate on Idaho’s per-pupil spending, which chronically ranks last in the nation.

“Our initiative will shine a light on just how big the problem really is,” Mayville said.

How we got here

Let’s look at how Reclaim Idaho is on the cusp of getting its initiative on the ballot.

As of Thursday, Reclaim has collected 86,768 signatures for its initiative. The group needs 64,945 signatures statewide. But Reclaim will work through the end of next week — the state’s deadline — to overshoot the target, and ensure it has more than enough valid signatures to qualify. Inevitably, some signatures get tossed out, so Reclaim wants a working cushion of 25,000 to 30,000 signatures.

The 64,945-signature goal represents 6% of Idaho’s registered voters, but just one legal hurdle. Idaho law sets a second, parallel threshold: initiative sponsors need to collect signatures from 6% of registered voters in 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts.

Reclaim Idaho says it has already reached this mark, and in some unlikely spots on the map.

Luke Mayville (Reclaim Idaho photo)

In addition to hitting the 6% threshold in blue or purple legislative districts — in areas like Boise and Blaine County — Reclaim has reached the threshold in districts in North Idaho, Canyon County, suburban Ada County and Eastern Idaho, Mayville said.

“We have organized in districts where there are passionate volunteers who’ve come forward to work on this,” he said. “We didn’t choose our districts based on the ideological or partisan leanings of the districts.”

That doesn’t mean the Reclaim Idaho education initiative would pass in these conservative strongholds. But Reclaim wouldn’t be starting from scratch either, heading into a fall campaign.

How it would work

Now, let’s review the Quality Education Act’s framework.

The initiative would set up a standalone fund to cover a variety of K-12 initiatives: hiring and retaining teachers and staff, or counselors and school psychologists; special education programs; all-day kindergarten; career-technical programs, and more.

None of these concepts are new — and many have enjoyed bipartisan support in recent legislative sessions. But Reclaim’s plan to pay for the initiative is a 180 from Statehouse conventional wisdom.

The Reclaim initiative would increase the corporate tax rate from 6% to 8%. It would create a 4.5% tax on personal incomes exceeding $250,000, or household incomes exceeding $500,000.

Reclaim’s initiative would be on the ballot just months after Gov. Brad Little and the Legislature agreed on what Little loves to call the largest tax cut in state history: a $600 million plan that reduced the corporate tax rate and the state’s highest personal income tax rate to 6%.

While some conservatives grumbled — and continued to push for a grocery tax repeal throughout the 2022 session — the income tax bill passed nearly on party lines.

Why messaging matters

As with most campaigns about ballot measures, this one would likely come down to framing.

If the debate centers on tax increases, even one that would hit corporations and the wealthy and leave most individuals untouched, the initiative would run into trouble. Especially with Republican candidates running for re-election and touting a $600 million tax cut on their resume.

But while tax policy is a partisan issue in the Statehouse, education funding isn’t nearly as partisan an issue around the state. Supplemental property tax levies regularly pass and often easily — even in rural districts, and even in some of those conservative communities where Reclaim signature-gatherers have made inroads.

Routinely, education ranks as the state’s highest priority, according to Boise State University’s annual Idaho Public Policy Survey. In the most recent survey, conducted in November, 71% of Idahoans listed education as a high priority — and that included 66% of Republican respondents. Taxes ranked sixth of the list of priorities, with 45% of respondents calling it a high priority.

If a debate centers on education and children, that would be to Reclaim’s advantage. Messaging matters.

Who would support the initiative, or oppose it?

Four years ago, Reclaim managed to step carefully along the state’s ideological fault line. The group’s Medicaid expansion initiative passed with 61% support, carrying 35 of Idaho’s 44 counties.

While the Idaho Freedom Foundation constituted the de facto opposition to the Medicaid expansion initiative, Reclaim assembled a long list of supporters. The list included the Idaho School Boards Association and the Idaho Education Association. “Healthy families are essential to a student’s academic success,” the groups said in a joint endorsement in September 2018.

No such endorsements for the education funding initiative. At least at this early stage.

ISBA and the Idaho Association of School Administrators have taken no position. The same goes for the IEA, but that could change soon, spokesman Mike Journee said. The group holds its annual delegate assembly this weekend, and that’s when the IEA might vote on an official position.

Idaho Business for Education has taken no position yet, president Rod Gramer said. If IBE does weigh in, it will be significant — since the group represents CEOs of businesses that would be hit directly by a corporate tax hike.

Mayville says he isn’t trying to forecast who would support or oppose the education initiative. But he says Reclaim would try to blunt the criticism of the tax increases by recruiting business leaders and wealthy Idahoans to publicly endorse the effort.

Campaigns build coalitions. Campaigns also expose divisions.

And the Reclaim campaign could force a difficult discussion about school funding.

This year’s 11% increase in K-12 spending was a good first step, Mayville said, but “just not nearly enough.” Low per-pupil spending manifests itself in many problems: teacher turnover; literacy paraprofessionals, hired at meager wages; underfunded and understaffed career-technical courses.

“We are much further behind than our politicians have been willing to admit,” Mayville said.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday. 

More reading: More about the Reclaim initiative from Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press and Clark Corbin of Idaho Capital Sun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kevin Richert

About 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 KIVI 6 On Your Side; "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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