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Session So Special

Lawmakers heading to the Capitol Aug. 25


The worst-kept secret in Idaho politics is out of the threadbare bag: Gov. Jim Risch has finally announced he will call a special session of the Idaho Legislature for next month.

He has his votes rounded up, his plan drafted and, he expects, it shouldn't take more than a single day, Aug. 25. His plan: Remove the part of property tax bills that escalate along with property values, hike the sales tax by 1 cent, and drop $100 million from Idaho's surplus revenues into the state's "education rainy day fund."

"If you're going to get something done, it's got to be simple, and it's got to be basic," Risch said Tuesday.

Idaho Democrats have their own plan, which they say is targeted more directly at the people who need the break: By giving a bigger exemption to homeowners and paying for it with ongoing revenue surpluses, they say, Idahoans could get a true home-based tax cut. Out-of-state owners of vacation homes or businesses wouldn't get thrown into the mix, as they are with Risch's plan. The minority party has been holding town hall-style meetings around the state recently, talking up their idea, which Risch disdains as legally shaky (he doubts the state can target classes of taxpayers) and politically unfeasible (they'll never get the Republican-dominated Legislature to go along).

If he's so sure, Sen. Kate Kelly said, then let the people vote on it. The Boise Democrat said instead of having an advisory vote in November asking people if they like what the Legislature did, Risch should allow both the Republican and Democrat plans to stand side by side, and let voters choose.

But you can tweak the three-legged stool of state income any way you like; any way you look at it, state funding of schools is down, according to the Idaho Center on Budget and Tax Policy. In 2003, the center found, public school spending took up 47.5 percent of general fund revenues. This year, that number is down to just 44.9 percent. The longer the trend goes out, said the center's director, Judith Brown, the worse that trend gets.

"With all the talk about shifting school maintenance and operations from local control to the state General Fund, it's important for Idahoans to know that the trend from the Legislature is to dedicate less and less of the General Fund toward our children's education," Brown said in a prepared statement.

Risch dodged the percentage question by telling a group of Idaho county tax assessors that, "not one time has the Idaho Legislature ever given public schools less than they got the year before." In raw dollars, Brown said, he's right. But when you factor in inflation and the state's growth, the raw dollars aren't keeping up.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are readying for their day in the Capitol.

"It's important that we get it done on the 25th, because on the 26th, I'm flying to Alaska to go fishing with my family," said House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, a Burley Republican.