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Idaho taxpayers need a Bill of Rights, too

Idaho taxpayers need a Bill of Rights, too

Fred Birnbaum
June 10, 2016
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June 10, 2016

The Idaho Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Summer Interim Tour is scheduled to begin next week. During the legislative session, this is the committee that reviews the governor’s and agencies’ funding requests and ultimately sends agency appropriation bills to the floor of the House and Senate.

Does the budget-setting process work well? It does for state agencies. They can bend the ear of the 20 legislators who make up this committee and put together presentations that justify their requests for increased spending. Everyday Idahoans are at a disadvantage: The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee hears public testimony on just one day during each legislative session.

Typically, it should be noted, current fiscal year spending is the starting point for each agency. So the debate merely becomes about the size of the increase. With few exceptions, zero-based budgeting is not used.

In regard to the size-of-the-increase debate, let’s put some numbers out there. From fiscal years 2011 to 2016 Idaho general fund spending increased 28.9 percent. Yes, this was the increase coming out of the recession, so it’s reasonable to expect legislators to increase some agency budgets. However, during the same period, on average, the other 49 states increased their general fund spending 22.5 percent. Yes, that is correct, “conservative” Idaho is growing spending faster than the average state.

How do we address this imbalance? One option, pass a TaxPayer Bill of Rights for Idahoans. The notion is simple, government spending should be limited to a formula with excess revenues returned to the taxpayers.

How would this work? One possibility would be to limit annual spending increases to the sum of population growth plus inflation. Had such a “popuflation” law been in place, for the period 2011 to 2016, this would equate to about 12.2 percent budget increase, which is less than half of what the actual general fund spending increase was.

Idahoans are told by the mainstream press and some state agency employees that we are lightly taxed relative to other states and don’t need a tax cut. The reality is, our tax burden, as a share of our income, is high regionally. We have allowed state government to swallow and spend every dollar that has come its way since the recession bottomed out. It is time to address this imbalance with some control on spending.

Idaho taxpayers deserve to keep more of their hard-earned money. If spending increases are not brought under control, more and more of our incomes will be consumed by the state.

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