Instead of highlighting any achievements of the past six years in the U.S. Senate, incumbent Sen. Jim Risch chooses to reflect on his 220-day stint as governor of Idaho as a gauge of his success. Passed in an extraordinary legislative session called by Risch, the tax shift destabilized Idaho’s education funding, created inequality among school districts, and arguably violates the Idaho Constitution.
The Risch-pushed plan shifted the major source of funding for Idaho schools from the maintenance and operations property tax levy (M&O), which generated $260 million per year, to a 1 percent rise in sales tax, which generated only $210 million per year. Since consumer spending typically decreases when the economy suffers, sales tax is a much less-stable source of funding than property taxes. In March, Risch admitted the policy’s flaw, but argued that schools can “convince the local people” to pass a supplemental levy. While that’s been the only resort for struggling schools, many districts’ attempts to pass supplemental levies have failed.
Supplemental levies cannot be solvent. They are equivalent to putting a Band-Aid on a leaking pipe. The typical two-year maximum hampers any long-term solutions. Conversely, reliable maintenance and operations levies were used for basic necessities like building repair, power bills, and teacher and support staff salaries. After those essential funds disappeared, Idaho students have been drowning in schools with leaking pipes and empty Band-Aid boxes.
Idaho’s poorest schools have suffered the most because the shift has created quite literal ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ Michael Ferguson, former director of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, explained in a thorough report, “It cut the share of public school M&O funding coming from the property tax by over half. The part that was cut was the only portion of the property tax used to fund M&O that had been equalized. All the remaining M&O levies were not equalized.” As districts attempt to pass supplemental levies to recoup lost M&O funds, the disparity in districts’ funding has become wider. In districts where the proposed levy rates are high and income is low, the ballot measures are much more likely to fail. “If you are in a wealthy district, it takes a lower levy rate to raise a given amount of funds per student, all things being equal,” Ferguson explained. This is why equalized M&O funds were critical to maintaining uniform schools in Idaho.
Superintendent John McFarlane of the Basin School District in Idaho City hit it on the head when he wrote,
“Of the 115 school districts in Idaho, 108 of them have only one high school, which speaks to the rural nature of our state… Dilapidated buildings, poorly outfitted classrooms, and underpaid staff…is not a sustainable model of education… Rural students in Idaho City should be afforded the same educational opportunities as their peers in Boise – and our state constitution mandates it.”
The Idaho Constitution does mandate equality among districts. In Article IX, Section 1, it reads that “it shall be the duty of the legislature of Idaho, to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system” of public schools. Additionally, economist Ferguson brought to light that the Constitution outlines in Article VII, Section 5 also says that property taxes should be uniform to fund that public education system.
Unconcerned about the constitutionality of his policy, Risch vowed in his Oct. 6th debate to prevent a repeal of his policy, saying, “If I’m reelected, I will use the influence of this office to see that your property taxes are not increased.” To date, Risch has also not called for any formal review of the fiscal impact of his tax shift, nor has he “used the influence of his office” to determine alternatives to property tax funded education that will provide stability and appropriateness.
Refreshingly, challenger Nels Mitchell acknowledged, “The single biggest problem in Idaho is our lack of funding for public education. We are now last in the country on funding on a per-pupil basis. That’s really the most serious problem we face here in Idaho and something that needs to be corrected.” Between Mitchell’s understanding of the need to invest in education and his priority to create and keep good jobs in Idaho, he offers an appealing alternative to the incumbent.
Risch votes against many spending bills due to the oath he took known as the Norquist pledge. Former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson (co-chairman of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform) described the Norquist pledge as the equivalent to saying, “no taxes, under any situation, even if your country goes to hell.” That’s eerily indicative of Risch’s position as Idaho’s educational system is headed for Hades.
Risch is a perfect example of those waging the “War on Math,” in which elected officials recklessly cut taxes, ignore the impact of those lost revenues, and refuse to spend money where it is essential. Albeit important, cutting spending alone does not equal economic success. Pulitzer Prize winning economist Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum coined that term in their book, That Used to Be Us, and concluded:
“That means that every mayor, governor, and member of Congress, not to mention every president we elect must be guided by this truth: If we keep spending as we have in the past, we are mortgaging – indeed sabotaging – our nation’s future. But if we don’t spend on the right things… we are just as surely mortgaging and sabotaging our future… We not only have to get well as a country; we have to get strong again…
To assure the nation’s economic future, we will have to spend more, not less, on some things: infrastructure … education…”
Idahoans value our children, our hardworking teachers, and we want our future to be sustainable. If we ever want to move up in education rankings, we need to hold Risch accountable for reckless cuts to education and we need to elect a senator who values people over dollars.
Holly Harrington Cook is a senior at the College of Idaho studying political economy. She grew up in Eastern Idaho and now resides in Meridian with her husband and three children.