Printed on: March 04, 2013

Lewiston Tribune: Idaho's schools take another hit

Idaho's governor and Legislature couldn't do a better job of dismantling public education if they tried.

And who says they're not trying? You must be logged in with the proper services to print this article.

For more than a decade, they have whittled away at the state's financial commitment to K-12. Last year Mike Ferguson, the former chief economist who now is director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, unearthed this fact: In that time, the share of Idaho's personal income devoted to schools dropped more than 20 percent, the equivalent of $550 million annually.

Under the disastrous influence of then-Gov. Jim Risch, lawmakers in 2006 kicked the props out from under stable school finance by replacing property tax support with sales taxes - a foundation that crumbled under the weight of the Great Recession.

Using that recession as cover three years ago, they rejected Ferguson's professional judgment and low-balled the state's revenue forecast - thereby cutting school budgets more deeply than necessary. When Ferguson was proved right - and the economy began its slow but steady recovery - money that might have gone toward restoring school losses paid for tax cuts for wealthy families and big corporations.

Next, lawmakers proceeded to declare war on public school teachers' employment rights. Even when voters told them to knock it off by repealing the package, lawmakers insisted they knew better.

Throughout the siege, one lifeline has remained: the willingness of patrons across Idaho to get out their wallets and replace some of the lost state dollars with local property taxes.

With that lifeline, some schools maintained the music programs or sports that state budgets would no longer support.

Or they raised extra money to attract and retain quality teachers - in greater numbers than Idaho's lawmakers were willing to provide.

In some cases, the supplemental levy was the difference between keeping a school open or sending a community's children down the road to another town.

Last year, three-quarters of Idaho's schools relied on a supplemental levy - and the total raised jumped 20 percent to $170 million.

Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter is about to sever that lifeline.

He'll do it by repealing the personal property tax businesses pay on equipment. Most of that $141 million in tax relief will go toward the biggest corporations in the state.

Otter plans to phase it in during the next six years. When he's finished, the governor will have essentially provided tax relief to his allies in the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry - on the backs of public school students.

First, he plans to transfer $90 million from the general fund to help cities and counties absorb the bulk of the impact. Schools get half of each general fund dollar. Money funneled into IACI members' deep pockets can't be spent on education.

Otter would give cities and counties the ability to compensate for personal property tax dollars they otherwise would lose by shifting the burden over to homes and small businesses.

But Otter pulls the rug out from under school levies. Before school districts could shift their personal property tax losses over to homes and small businesses, they must seek voter approval.

It works like this: Say a district raises $12.4 million from a supplemental levy and $2.4 million of it now comes from personal property taxes. Under Otter's plan, that district must raise levies on the remaining homes and small businesses by almost 25 percent just to stay even.

Already grumpy about paying more local government taxes - something they can't control - what will voters say about paying 25 percent more in school-generated property tax rates?

Ferguson, who outlined these features of the still-to-be-released Otter plan, predicts this will have a "devastating" effect on public education.

On its own, Otter's tax package might just be a bad idea conjured up inside the governor's political bubble.

But coming on top of so many other hits public education has suffered in the past dozen years, you have to wonder: Is this is just a coincidence on the governor's part - or something more sinister?