Hiding in plain sight

Shakespeare pondered through his character Juliet “What is in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

As with most things in this world the opposite is also true if you care to think along similar lines. So I am asking; “What is in a name? That which we call a pile of rotting garbage by any other name would still smell as foul.”

Senator Jeff Siddoway heads the Senate Local Government and Taxation committee in Boise. Siddoway told the Idaho Statesman on Monday, Feb. 24, his committee would not consider any other tax cutting bill except one that would get rid of the business property surcharge.

What Siddoway is calling a business property surcharge was called, last year, the business personal property tax.

This is the tax on operating property, everything from staplers to blast furnaces. It is also the tax that makes up over 40 percent of the money Power County uses to operate. The percentage is higher for other taxing districts in the area like the American Falls District Library or Power County Hospital District.

Last year businesses received a blanket $100,000 exemption, which removed nearly $20 million in revenues from the state.

“I gave my word I would do everything I could to get rid of the personal property tax. Beyond that, I’m not willing to look at any other tax reduction until we get the school funding problem fixed,” said Siddoway.

The “school funding problem” Siddoway is referring to is finding nearly $350 million to implement 20 suggestions made by Gov. Otter’s Education Taskforce. Most of those suggestions involve returning education funding to previously higher levels and improve education by directing that funding to specific programs.

Siddoway is in favor of phasing out the business personal property tax over the next 10 years. His major problem is finding a way to replace the lost revenue during the phase out.

While I appreciate Siddoway’s desire to fulfill his word, like doctors I believe lawmakers should endeavor to “do no harm.”

This is really an argument of what is known versus what is unknown.

Currently taxing districts and counties know, with reasonable certainty, how much money they will receive and can plan accordingly.

At this moment there are promises of replacement revenue, but there is no real plan for replacement of that revenue so no one knows if there is a way to replace the money.

The dominant theory behind removing the business personal property tax is the tax makes Idaho less attractive to companies looking to locate and it hampers the ability of Idaho companies by making equipment purchases more expensive.

Siddoway is hiding the same old issue behind a new name. What is really unfortunate for the people Siddoway made his promise to is he just hitched the business personal property tax wagon to the education horse.

When the funding model was changed for education to a more state-centric system by which the state, not the local school district, collected the bulk of taxes used for education funding there were promises the new system would level funding between large and small districts, funding levels would remain the same, local control would be retained and there would be a replacement plan for any lost revenue to the districts.

Since then funding levels have gone down. Smaller school districts may or may not be doing better because they were not hit as hard by funding cuts, but there is not a real effective way to measure the true impact.

We know the amount of money that would have been collected locally is not being returned in full measure to the local districts. We know a lot of that money has been shunted into other projects or programs. We also know the replacement plan was discontinued early ostensibly because the economic downturn required funding to be split.

It seems each year the conversation about returning education funding to previous, locally controlled, levels is polluted by cries that redirection of those funds was the work of a “different legislature.” It is all too often a politician is quoted saying they have no control because the decision in question was made in a previous year. So we know each successive year is looked upon as whole new entity that has no responsibility to improve on good ideas or rectify the mistakes of the previous session.

Each legislative body may be different because a few legislators retired, lost an election, or resigned for nefarious reason, but the state will always be the state. Idaho does not just operate during the 90 days congress in session. Idaho is open for business every day of the year. Using education as a model; it would be ridiculous to most people if their local school denied responsibility for a student’s continuing education because the computer teacher retired last year.

“Sorry Mrs. White. Tommy may have failed math last year, but we are not going to offer him remedial instruction because computer instructor, Mr. Black is no longer with the district. I am sure you understand that was a totally different school district and we can’t be expected to make up for their mistakes.”

This legislature and the ones to follow have an obligation to use their current power to refine the decisions of the past. Funding in many areas is lacking and banking future prosperity on an unknown is not responsible policy making. No one knows if removing the business property surcharge will actually attract new companies to Idaho. We can be fairly certain the next legislature won’t take responsibility for the decisions of this one and we know reducing revenue will leave less money to spread around.

Siddoway made a promise to a few people with a lot of money and is not giving due consideration to the impacts keeping that promise will have.

Hiding the issue by any other name will not change those impacts.

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