A tax credit bill that would divert $50 million from the state general fund to provide money to support private and religious schools will soon be considered in the Idaho Legislature.
Advocates of the tax credit cringe and protest when it is referred to as a “voucher tax credit.” That’s because the word voucher holds a negative connotation with the public and the voucher lobby wants Idahoans and their legislators to think the tax credit is harmless.
“People’s eyes get bleary, and they tune out when people start talking about tax credits,” says Kevin Welner, co-founder of the National Education Policy Center. “That helps avoid a situation where they respond to it the same way they respond to a voucher proposal.”
But there is nothing harmless about tax credits. They have the same negative effect on neighborhood schools as other programs such as education savings accounts (ESA) and scholarships. By providing money for private and religious schools, the tax credit will take money away from neighborhood schools and make it more difficult for the Legislature to meet its constitutional mandate to fund a free, uniform, and thorough public school system.
In Arizona, a similar tax credit costs that state’s general fund $272 million a year and Save Our Schools Arizona founder Beth Lewis projects that the cost will increase to $300 million later this year. In Florida, a tax credit for private and religious schools costs the Sunshine State $1 billion a year.
Voucher lobbyists also say the tax credit doesn’t violate the Idaho Constitution’s prohibition against using taxpayer dollars to fund religious schools because the money never reaches the general fund. Such a message cynically ignores the fact that the result is the same – tax credits divert taxpayers’ money to subsidize religious schools.
Rep. Stephanie Mickelsen and Sen. Kevin Cook, both eastern Idaho Republicans, rightly describe the tax credit as a “redistribution of wealth” as the average Idahoan pays $1,625 in income taxes, while the tax credit gives families $5,000 per child regardless of a family’s income.
Another issue is tax credits are often the first step toward passing universal education savings accounts or voucher scholarships. In states like Arizona and Florida, once a tax credit is adopted the voucher lobby moves on to pass these other voucher taxpayer subsidies which take even more money away from neighborhood schools.
In Arizona, the universal ESA program cost is projected to reach $900 million a year and Florida’s universal voucher program is estimated to cost taxpayers between $2 billion and $4 billion.
Why are the voucher lobbyists in Idaho turning to the tax credit? Because Idaho’s legislators have repeatedly rejected creating an education savings account. They obviously decided during the summer that a tax credit would be easier to pass.
Idaho’s legislators should not be fooled. If the tax credit passes, the voucher lobbyists will be back to expand it and they will continue pressuring lawmakers to pass an education savings account. The heat on lawmakers won’t subside – it will only get hotter.
If the voucher lobbyists are successful, Idaho will be in the same position as other states where these voucher-like programs are hurting funding for neighborhood schools, busting state budgets, and causing property taxpayers to raise their taxes just to keep their neighborhood schools open.
We cannot let that happen to our great state, its students, and taxpayers.