Reduce taxes? Or increase teacher pay?

The 2016 legislative session is more than three months away, but one fault line came into focus Friday.

How will lawmakers balance their desire to cut taxes against their five-year commitment to boost Idaho teacher pay?

Tax relief and the teacher career ladder were two recurring talking points during a legislative summit sponsored by Treasure Valley chambers of commerce.

The 2015 Legislature funded year one of the “career ladder,” with much of the money earmarked to boost pay for beginning and less-experienced teachers. That law included a $33.5 million down payment to raise teacher pay, but the second year of the plan includes pay increases of slightly more than $50 million.

Meanwhile, said Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, education groups are working on language to bring physical therapists, psychologists and other “pupil services” professionals under the career ladder, at a cost of $10 million to $12 million.

Collins New
Rep. Gary Collins, R-Nampa

Rep. Gary Collins, chairman of the powerful House Revenue and Taxation Committee, acknowledged that the 2015 Legislature made a lasting commitment to school funding. “Those are some serious dollars that we have to come up with.”

However, Collins sharply hinted at tax relief — saying that the prevailing “will” in the House and Senate supports a cut in corporate and individual income tax relief. For tax hawks in the House, income tax relief is a big bit of unfinished business from the 2015 session. The House passed an omnibus tax bill that restructured Idaho’s top income tax rates — but the bill went nowhere in the Senate.

This summer, legislative leaders have convened a tax reform “working group” designed to break the impasse between the House and the Senate. The ultimate goal, said Collins, is to look for tax changes that would make Idaho more competitive with neighboring states. But this week, the behind-the-scenes nature of the working group drew criticism from an unlikely tandem: the conservative Idaho Freedom Foundation and Lewiston Tribune editorial page editor Marty Trillhaase.

Ward-Engelking New
Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise

To be sure, lawmakers will enter 2016 wrestling with a variety of funding demands, as outlined during Friday’s panel discussions. Earlier this month, Idaho’s wildland firefighting bill was pegged at $67 million. The 2015 session ended with passage of a $95 million transportation funding law that addresses only a portion of the state’s maintenance backlog.

But the 2016 session could begin where the 2015 session began — with a debate pitting tax relief against teacher pay.

Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee Chairman Jeff Siddoway opened the 2015 session with a salvo: He pledged to block any tax relief until the state boosts starting teacher pay to $40,000. John Watts, a lobbyist for the Idaho Chamber Alliance, alluded to Siddoway’s “line in the sand” position, and said he hoped the passage of the career ladder would open the door to a debate on tax reform.

The first installment of the career ladder increased minimum teacher pay to $32,700. And Ward-Engelking — a retired teacher and member of Gov. Butch Otter’s education task force — reminded Friday’s audience that the task force recommended a starting salary of $40,000, and a high-end teacher salary of $60,000.

“We did not come close to that, really, last year,” she said.