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Nielsen to wage one-man war on Idaho’s latest tax giveaway

Nielsen to wage one-man war on Idaho’s latest tax giveaway

Dustin Hurst
February 12, 2015
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February 12, 2015

Mountain Home Republican legislator Pete Nielsen knows he's in a losing tussle.

"I know good and well this bill is going to pass," Nielsen told IdahoReporter.com Wednesday. "I'm just trying to educate people."

Nielsen set up a showdown with House Commerce and Resources Committee Chair Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, during the panel's Wednesday hearing.

After Department of Commerce staffer Megan Ronk proposed a small change to an economic oversight board within the department, Nielsen quickly flipped on the red light adorning his desk's microphone, indicating a desire to speak.

After a few words, Hartgen quickly shut down his Mountain Home colleague. "This is not for us to revisit in a formal sense," the chairman ordered.

Why the block? While Ronk's bill represents a tiny change for the department, it was an effort to optimize the way Idaho hands out tax breaks to companies, a rub for Nielsen.

Officially dubbed the Tax Reimbursement Incentive, the program gives tax rebates after approved companies add jobs at certain wage levels. The perk is the prized legislative get for Commerce Director Jeff Sayer, who pushed the idea through the Statehouse last year.

With it, he told lawmakers earlier this year, his agency has drawn millions in capital investment and new wages to the Gem State.

Ronk originally pitched the bill Monday, a meeting in which Nielsen beat the drum in opposition to any changes that might make it easier to give breaks to bigger companies. He held his tongue during Wednesday's introductory meeting, but pledged to bring more heat when the measure receives a full committee discussion.

"If we vote to change this even a little bit to how they want it, it means you agree with the basic bill," Nielsen said. "I'm not going to agree with it."

The 12-year Statehouse veteran opposes the measure solely on ideological turf. "It's a hell of a bad idea," he said of the tax break program. Handing out government-backed breaks and entitlements has driven the nation into dire straits.

"Where's it gotten us today?" he wondered. "$19 trillion in debt. Does it hurt?"

But his doomed rebellion against a simple bill is also a stand for Idaho's small businesses. The tax break program requires companies to create 50 new jobs in Idaho's urban areas and 20 new positions in rural counties, a bar Nielsen believes is too high for the little guy.

"What about the mom and pop businesses?" he asked.

Ronk offered the department's official stance during committee testimony. "This is an important incentive and we wanted to look at projects that were going to make a significant impact on the state," Ronk told panel members. "That is why we made that distinction between the 20 and 50."

The tax break program also requires interested companies to pay wages above average county salary levels.

It's all too much for Nielsen, who can make his case at least twice more -- once in the full hearing and again on the House floor if the measure clears his panel. "That's competition that's unfair," he said of some businesses receiving tax breaks while others struggle under the full state-imposed burden.

There's no last ire between Hartgen and Nielsen -- at least for now. "Oh no, no, we're fine," Hartgen said following the hearing. "Pete's got a lot of good ideas and I like to give everyone a chance to get their ideas in."

Will Nielsen have an open mic to express his frustrations at the full hearing? Probably. "We have this bill coming up next week and we'll have more discussion on it," Hartgen said. "And we'll let the chips fall where they may."

The Mountain Home Republican eagerly awaits his chance. "I'm just trying to educate people," he said, boasting of his Wednesday lunch economics lesson for House pages. [tweetable hashtag="#IDleg"]"If we educate enough people, we can get things to improve."[/tweetable]

If his opportunity comes next week, don't expect Nielsen to pull punches, even though he's Ivan Drago to Jeff Sayer's Rocky.

"Where do we stop this horseshit?" he asked.

For her part, Ronk said she's ready for the inquiries.

"We're happy to address all the questions," she said.

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