A new attempt to help Boise County pay a legal judgment has passed the House after an exhaustive debate and learning session over the complexities of state tax law.
A previous bill that would let the county raise taxes without a vote failed on the House floor. The new bill, House Bill 697, would let Boise County officials ask voters for a simple majority vote to approve a bond to pay off the legal judgment.
Members peppered the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, with questions about the bill, Boise County’s other options, implications on other taxing districts in Idaho and the consequences if the county residents agree to or fail to pass a bond.
“This is a taxpayer friendly piece of legislation to deal with a very narrow set of circumstances in a very unusual situation in the state of Idaho,” Roberts told his colleagues.
The “unusual situation” has to do with a federal jury’s decision in 2010 that the county had violated the federal Fair Housing Act. The jury awarded Oaas Laney, a developer, $4 million in damages because the county had mishandled an application for a teen treatment center. But the county contends it doesn’t have the money to pay the judgment. A federal judge said the county will have to raise taxes beyond the limits in Idaho law—even suing the state to get the job done.
“The citizens are rallying behind this path forward,” Roberts said. “They will be forced to sue the tax commission in the court of law” if the bill doesn’t pass, he said.
Rep. Dell Raybould, a Rexburg Republican, said the people who opposed the defeated Boise County bailout bill are now supporting House Bill 697. “The county has a problem. They’ve got to do something and this will save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars if they’re able to follow what this bill does,” said Raybould.
Rep. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, said the bill lets county residents decide whether to raise taxes, cut spending or do a combination of the two. “The choice is up to them,” said Thayn.
Rep. Cliff Bayer, a Boise Republican, said the new bill is an improvement over the previous version, but still “a bad precedent,” adding, “It’s a very bad situation for the county. “It’s going to open Pandora’s Box.”
“I think that this particular legislation flies in the face of our constitution,” said Republican Rep. Bob Nonini of Coeur d’Alene. “I’m just concerned that this was brought about by bad decisions, wrong decisions by county commissioners. If we let this legislation go through, it allows the opportunity to arise for more bad decisions from county officials if they think there’s a safety net there.”
The bill passed 48-21 and now goes to the Senate.