Otter signs tax bill, as a ‘fix’ clears committee

Moments before Gov. Butch Otter signed one big tax bill into law, the House took one step closer to passing a patchup plan.

Flanked by Lt. Gov. Brad Little and GOP legislative leaders, Otter put his formal stamp on House Bill 463. The complicated omnibus bill reduces personal and corporate income tax rates across the board, and brings Idaho tax code in line with the federal tax overhaul passed in December.

Otter and GOP leadership signed on to HB 463 from the start of the session. They wanted the state to line up its tax code to match Uncle Sam’s — even though that means Idahoans will pay an additional $97.4 million in state taxes. So HB 463 contained $201.9 million in tax cuts, mostly in an across-the-board income tax reduction.

“It’s Idaho’s effort to minimize what the federal government has passed, and what it took away from Idaho citizens,” Otter said at a Statehouse signing ceremony Monday morning.

HB 463 included a $130-per-child credit on state taxes — but this credit isn’t sufficient to cover the cost of complying with the federal tax code, or head off a net tax increase for larger families. Enter House Bill 675, which would increase the child credit to $205. The $25 million bill is designed to head off tax increases for larger families. One of the bill’s sponsors, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said the increased tax credit should cover any household that uses the standard tax deduction.

Some House Revenue and Taxation Committee members voiced their skepticism — picking up on themes from the committee’s first hearing on the bill Friday. Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, said Idaho could easily afford a larger child credit, while Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, argued that the Legislature was still trying to fix a fundamentally unfair HB 463.

In the end, Revenue and Taxation voted unanimously to send HB 675 to the floor, where it could come up for a vote this week.

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School turnaround bill

The House Education Committee passed a bill designed to help turn around low-performing schools.

But, before giving Senate Bill 1291a the green light, a handful of committee members picked it apart during a lengthy, politically motivated debate.

SB 1291 would allow the State Board of Education to offer additional assistance and support to low-performing schools. Participation in the program would be voluntary, and would line up a school with a turnaround expert or consultant to develop and implement an improvement plan. Such schools would also form a turnaround committee comprising a local school board member, the building principal, parents, teachers, community members and the superintendent.

Schools would have one year to develop the improvement plan, then an additional two years to implement it and post improvements.

“I recognize this is not going to be a single effort,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dean Mortimer, who sponsored the bill. “In my opinion, this is going to be a combined effort, all the way from State Board of Education to students, parents and the community, and all the way back up.”

Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, has amended his bill to remove sanctions in favor of an incentive-based approach.

“It going to take a lot of extra effort, and I just don’t mean time,” Mortimer said. “There needs to be some type of incentive program in order to really facilitate and make this happen.”

Reps. Ryan Kerby and Dorothy Moon led opposition to the bill. Kerby, a New Plymouth Republican and retired school superintendent, revived a longstanding and convoluted power struggle between the State Board and state superintendent Sherri Ybarra.

“I really see this as eroding the ability of the state superintendent to lead the state — we’re getting ready to have elections,” Kerby said. “We cannot take all this authority away and give it to the State Board, especially day-to-day operations.”

Kerby did not disclose that a State Board advisory committee, the Professional Standards Commission, reprimanded him last year after finding he violated state law and the educators’ code of ethics when he submitted teacher evaluations while he was still superintendent.

Moments after Kerby spoke against the bill, House Education Committee Chairwoman Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, pointed out that Ybarra serves on the State Board.

Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, led the effort to pass the bill out of committee. SB 1291 next heads to the House floor with a recommendation it pass. The bill previously passed the Senate 28-7 on Thursday.

Higher education budget

With no debate, the Senate approved the 2018-19 budget for Idaho’s higher education system.

The budget earmarks $295.8 million of state general fund money into the college and university system, a 3 percent spending increase.

The bottom line varies across the system. Rapidly growing Boise State University would receive a 6.3 percent increase, and the University of Idaho and Lewis-Clark State College would receive increases of 0.5 percent and 0.2 percent, respectively. Idaho State University would absorb a 1.6 percent funding decrease, in the wake of declining enrollment.

There was no actual debate, but one brief moment of dissent. Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, said he was voting against the budget because he believes Idaho’s college and university faculty have become too political, and should instead focus on teaching their students.

With the Senate’s 33-2 vote, the higher education budget goes to the House.

Lightning round in Senate Education

With very little debate, Senate Education whisked through four House-passed bills and sent them to the Senate floor for a final vote:

  • House Bill 443, Nate’s bill to encourage school districts to offer voluntary gun safety classes.
  • House Bill 648, DeMordaunt’s bill to require school districts to offer a high school computer elective — either in a traditional setting or as an online class.
  • House Bill 634, which would provide suicide prevention and awareness training to all public school employees. Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, is sponsoring the bill.
  • House Bill 632, a State Department of Education bill to carve up a proposed $2 million increase in funding for college and career advisers.

Idaho Education News reporter Clark Corbin contributed to this report. 

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