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Divided Idaho House backs anti-school bond measure

By BETSY Z. RUSSELL Feb 19, 2022

BOISE — Legislation to forbid Idaho school districts or other local taxing districts from rerunning a bond election for 11 months after failing to reach the 66.67% supermajority passed the House Thursday with bipartisan opposition, amid concerns it could make it even harder for Idaho to address a huge backlog of school facilities issues.

“It is definitely a policy change on how government does business,” Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, the bill’s sponsor, told the House, saying, “No means no.”

Scott said she wants to rein in “aggressive taxing districts” that she said are “trying to take advantage of the citizens.”

Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, a longtime teacher, said, “This is aimed mostly at our schools, we know that. ... This bill creates even more difficult hurdles for a process that is already extremely difficult.”

Toone said “nearly every district that has run a bond twice in the same year” did so because a majority of voters supported it, just not enough to meet the two-thirds supermajority requirement. She cited nearly a half-dozen specific examples in school districts around the state, in each of which more than 70% of local voters backed the bond proposal on the second try.

Among them: A Parma school bond that failed though 64.4% of voters supported it; on the second try, 72% backed it, Toone said.

With only very limited exceptions, the only way to build a new school in Idaho is for local property taxpayers to vote by a two-thirds margin to raise their own property taxes. According to a new report commissioned by the Legislature this year, Idaho faces a more than $800 million backlog in school facility maintenance, repair and construction, and school districts have few options to address it.

The report, commissioned by the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee, raised questions about whether the state is complying with a constitutional requirement to “maintain adequate school building facilities across the state.”

“They don’t have many tools left, and this just takes one away,” said Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise. He said Scott’s bill would drive up property taxes by forcing delays in school construction as costs are rising. “I don’t believe that 35% or 39% of voters saying ‘no’ is a persuasive enough reason to take this tool away from districts,” he said.

The bill, HB 512, passed 43-26, drawing less support than a 2020 version that passed the House 48-21 but died in committee in the Senate. Fourteen House Republicans joined all 12 House Democrats in opposing the bill.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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