Idaho lawmakers don’t like the people telling them how to run the state, and they never have. When Idahoans attempted to institute term limits, the Legislature reversed them. When Idahoans pushed through Medicaid expansion, some tried to reverse the people’s will. And when that failed, they tacked on a series of punitive, meritless waivers which will waste a lot of money and impose a lot of pain without any obvious benefit to anyone.
But the Legislature has a chance to redeem itself this year. If it doesn’t, it risks being told what to do once again.
The question is simple: Can the Legislature demonstrate that it is the sort of practical, intelligent, policy-minded body that is supposed to make a representative democracy preferable to the initiative process’s direct democracy? Or will lawmakers once again demonstrate that they are above all concerned with their own appearance and political messaging?
Lawmakers failed to demonstrate their acumen as they considered Medicaid expansion, only to kick the can down the road until a grassroots group called Reclaim Idaho forced the issue and won. Now Reclaim is using the infrastructure built to fight for Medicaid expansion to circulate another initiative, one which would raise taxes on corporations and the very wealthy to address Idaho’s chronically underfunded schools.
As with Medicaid expansion, the Legislature has repeatedly punted on school funding since the very brief governorship of Jim Risch, in which he led an effort to change school funding, and the Great Recession, which wiped it out.
True, lawmakers have significantly increased education spending in recent years. But that’s mostly playing catch-up.
And they haven’t caught up by many measures. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, an Idaho public school teacher made about $53,000 a year on average in the 2009-2010 school year, after adjusting for inflation. Almost a decade later, it was about $49,000.
(The final year of the Career Ladder wage increases, which aren’t included in the data, will narrow, but not eliminate, that gap.)
And teacher pay is only one of a host of funding problems: districts chronically seeking levies for routine operations, schools switching to four-day weeks, aging schools that districts can’t convince two-thirds of voters to repair or replace, and schools turning to uncertified teachers because there are no certified ones willing to take the job.
Farmers have a term for what the Legislature has been doing, working to cut taxes on higher income brackets while underfunding education: eating your seed corn. By giving more to the wealthy, including through recent state tax cuts which dropped the top marginal income tax rate below 7 percent, lawmakers have neglected the kind of investment necessary for the state’s future — especially the education of its future workers.
Reclaim’s proposal is a reasonable option.
Any married couple who makes less than about $525,000 per year — the new tax bracket wouldn’t kick in until $500,000 of taxable income for a couple, and the 2020 standard deduction is projected to be $24,800 — will see no tax increase. In reality, the cutoff is higher because people with that level of income rarely take the standard deduction that most Idahoans take.
(It should be said that there is a risk that Reclaim’s proposed initiative will collect less than the projected $170-$200 million for education since there is an entire industry of tax lawyers and accountants who exist to help the well-off avoid pulling their fair share of the load. They can and do hire lobbyists who fight tooth-and-nail to structure the tax code in their favor, so expect a much uglier fight over this initiative than over Medicaid expansion.)
Even wealthy families would see quite small tax increases, according to a Post Register analysis. A couple earning $900,000 per year would see at most a 1.8-percentage-point increase in their effective tax rate. Even a couple earning $5 million per year would see at most a 3.3-point increase — a significant amount, no doubt, but nothing that would significantly alter their standard of living.
But because the individuals and families targeted by these increases have such high incomes, a significant sum could be raised. That 3.3-point increase for a family with a $5 million annual income would mean up to $165,000 in additional funding for Idaho students.
If lawmakers want to avoid being told again by the people how to run this state, they simply need to stop kicking the can down the road. If there’s a better way to provide the tens of millions the state needs to shore up its education system, then let’s see it during the 2020 legislative session.