Third candidate showdown focuses on funding

Idaho should “explore” a more aggressive Internet sales tax, Jana Jones said Friday.

Sherri Ybarra, meanwhile, sidestepped the question, saying tax policy is wholly the job of the Legislature.

In their third head-to-head meeting of the week, the two state superintendent’s candidates didn’t break new ground — and, once again, they generally agreed on many issues.

But Friday’s City Club of Boise forum took a bit more of a fiscal focus. The candidates were asked about funding and tax policy — including sales taxes on Internet purchases, and the 2006 tax overhaul that eliminated most school property taxes, and raised the sales tax to make up much of the difference.

In advocating for the Internet tax, the Democrat Jones echoed outgoing Republican state superintendent Tom Luna. Throughout much of his eight-year tenure, Luna has pinpointed Internet sales taxes as a possible source of new revenue for K-12.

But Jones also criticized the 2006 tax shift — engineered by then-Gov. Jim Risch and approved by the Legislature during a one-day session in August. When the state slashed school property taxes, the schools lost a stable source of day-to-day revenue. “We can’t depend on sales tax to be that funding source.”

Ybarra also has said the 2006 tax shift destabilized school funding. But on Friday, she said no one could have predicted the effects of the law, passed on the eve of the Great Recession, and deferred to lawmakers on tax issues.

Follow Idaho EdNews on Facebook for the latest news »

“It is up to the legislators to define the taxing formula in Idaho,” she said.

On several occasions, Ybarra pledged to fight for “adequate” school funding. She did not say what she considered adequate funding, but offered a few examples of what inadequate funding looks like. One example: the proliferation of school districts adopting a four-day calendar, in an attempt to save money.

Jones also decried the four-day schedule, which is now in place in more than 40 Idaho school districts. Children are in school for longer class days, she said, but the four-day calendar has the effect of shortening the school year by a month.

There weren’t many fireworks at Friday’s forum, but Ybarra was on the defensive when asked about her voting record. Ybarra did not vote in the 2012 general election, when Idahoans overwhelmingly rejected Luna’s Propositions 1, 2 and 3. Ybarra acknowledged sitting out the election, but also suggested that most voters miss an election or two at some point in their lives.

Jones didn’t buy it. She said she not only voted on the propositions, but campaigned against the laws. “Voting is a way that we actively engage in the process.”

The two candidates also sparred, again, about their qualifications.

Jones decried eight years of Republican education policy; “look where we are today.” But she said her experience in the State Department of Education, working for Democratic and Republican superintendents, gives her statewide perspective and a talent for building coalitions.

Ybarra said she offers a conservative choice — but pledged to work at the Statehouse as a champion for schools. She said her administrative experience at the Mountain Home School District has prepared her to oversee the state’s K-12 system. “I am in the prime of my career.”

About 280 people attended Friday’s forum.

The candidates will square off on Oct. 21 in a debate aired statewide on Idaho Public Television.

More reading: See our coverage of Tuesday’s debate in Twin Falls, and Thursday’s debate in Caldwell.

Disclosure: Kevin Richert is a City Club of Boise board member, and organized Friday’s forum.