Supreme Court keeps grocery tax on the books

The state Supreme Court Tuesday rejected a bid to repeal Idaho’s sales tax on groceries — despite Gov. Butch Otter’s veto.

Like the legal struggle over the grocery tax repeal, Tuesday’s 4-1 ruling centered on the timing of Otter’s veto.

While the upshot of the ruling focused on timing issues, the decision has significant implications for the state budget, including education funding.

The repeal, which would have gone into effect for the 2018-19 budget year, would have cut about $80 million a year from the state’s general fund. The general fund — derived mostly from sales and income taxes — finances education and most other state agencies. Traditionally, K-12 and higher education receive about 60 percent of general fund dollars.

In vetoing the bill, Otter lamented the potential impact on education and other state services. “How to make up for that forgone revenue has not been expressed,” Otter wrote in a letter explaining his veto. “I doubt it has been much considered.”

The veto, and the resulting legal challenge, exposed an open rift between Statehouse Republicans. Thirty Republican legislators signed on to the unsuccessful legal appeal — after publicly criticizing Otter’s decision and questioning his leadership.

But the appeal too was centered on timing and procedure, as spelled out in Idaho’s Constitution.

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Lawmakers argued that Otter’s veto came too late — since it came on April 11, 13 days after the 2017 Legislature adjourned on March 29. The lawmakers said the Constitution gave Otter 10 days after the adjournment of the session to act on the grocery tax bill, not counting Sundays. That timetable would effectively leave Otter a 12-day window to act on the bill, not a 13-day window.

In a 21-page decision issued late Tuesday afternoon, justices agreed with the lawmakers on their interpretation of the timetable. But the majority opinion also chided lawmakers for presenting the grocery tax bill to Otter on March 31, two days after the end of the session.

“If we declared the governor’s veto untimely, we would also have to declare the law he vetoed void because it had not been presented to him before the legislature adjourned,” said retiring Justice Daniel Eismann, writing for the majority. “Both the presentment by the legislature and the veto by the governor violated the Constitution.”

Justice Warren Jones dissented. He argued that the Constitution does not expressly forbid the Legislature from sending bills to the governor after adjourning for the year.