Analysis: Statehouse drama shifts to tax policy

After much delay — but with little drama — legislative budget-writers crafted a K-12 spending plan Friday morning.

Meanwhile, the House Revenue and Taxation Committee gave party-line support to a complicated tax overhaul bill. The room was packed with “green tags,” registered lobbyists for business and education group.

The juxtaposition was telling. It says everything you need to know about the state of the 2015 session, now in its 75th day and heading straight into the endgame. The tension has shifted from the education debate to the tax debate.

And the tax debate, of course, has long-range implications for funding Idaho schools.

For the short term, the 2015-16 public schools budget has all the makings of a done deal. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee moved efficiently through the seven components that will make up the budget. There was little dissent.

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Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise

Boise Democratic Reps. John Gannon and Phylis King made a long-shot push to boost discretionary, or “operational” funding for school districts. They wanted to get this all-purpose money back to its pre-recession level of $25,696 per classroom. The motion died on an 18-2 vote; Gannon and King didn’t even get the support of the committee’s two Senate Democrats.

JFAC then voted — unanimously — to boost operational spending from $22,401 per classroom to $23,868. Rep. Wendy Horman, the Idaho Falls Republican assigned to carry the K-12 budget, said she looked “in every corner” of the K-12 budget for discretionary dollars, and bettered Gov. Butch Otter’s request by $208 per classroom.

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Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise

The rest of the budget proposal held few surprises. JFAC moved to mothball the beleaguered Schoolnet instructional management system, providing reduced and one-time funding for 2015-16, while providing more money to districts that want to shop for their own system. After holding off on budget-writing to allow legislators and education groups to hammer out a teacher career ladder bill that could pass both houses, JFAC put $33.5 million of first-year funding into the plan.

The bottom-line dollar figure is unchanged from Otter’s request from Jan. 12. K-12 spending would increase by 7.4 percent.

The spate of unanimous JFAC votes — coupled with the landslide House and Senate votes for the career ladder — seem to point to the same conclusion. When the Legislature returns Monday to start its 12th week, the votes on K-12 budgets appear to be a formality.

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Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star

The same cannot be said for the tax bill that passed committee Friday.

House Bill 311 is a combo plate of sorts. It would boost the gas tax by 7 cents a gallon, from 25 cents to 32 cents, to put money into Idaho’s growing highway maintenance needs. It would eliminate the sales tax on groceries. The top-end income tax rate would drop to 6.7 percent.

An animated House Majority Leader Mike Moyle argued for the overhaul, disputing claims that the plan would result in a tax hit on low-income households. “Idaho’s tax structure is out of whack.”

House Speaker Scott Bedke’s closing remarks took a scholarly tone. Having addressed one of the session’s three priorities — investing in education — it was time to invest in highways and economic development. The omnibus tax bill, he said, would address those objectives.

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House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley

But Bedke knows this bill is destined for a rewrite, even if it passes the House. Since the House has the constitutional authority to introduce tax legislation, the Senate can only write tax policy when it has a House-passed bill to serve as a framework.

As Bedke told first-year Rep. Dan Rudolph, a Lewiston Democrat and Revenue and Taxation Committee member, “You’re in for some political drama, I think.”

If drama prolongs the 2015 legislative session, it will center on taxes. By all indications, the curtain is coming down on this year’s education debate.

Disclosure: Schoolnet was funded in part from a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, which also funds Idaho Education News.

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