The first mission of every legislative session should be to cut taxes, and Gov. Brad Little’s proposal to cut income taxes is certainly welcome, but it’s hardly the best Idaho can do this year.
Several Idaho lawmakers have some really good ideas for dramatically cutting taxes. They want to push property taxes to near zero, get rid of the state’s income tax, or maybe eliminate the grocery tax. The budget surplus is large enough to accomplish these ambitious goals.
But those ideas likely won’t get a hearing because House Speaker Scott Bedke and various members of the legislative oligarchy decided that Little’s inferior tax break is as good as it will get. Little’s tax cut plan leaves plenty of room for the government to spend the state into oblivion.
Welcome to the Idaho Legislature, where only a select, powerful few get to decide which public policies move forward and which ones get shelved. It’s a far cry from the way things used to be in the not so distant past. It used to be that when the state had a big budget surplus, lawmakers openly brought their best proposals and hearings were held on the same.
I’m old enough to remember — and Bedke, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, and Little are, too — when the state faced a big budget surplus and lawmakers presented lots of ideas to figure out the best way to return the money to taxpayers. Yes, the governor arrives with his own plan. But it’s never been the only plan, until now.
More problematic is the fact that Little’s income tax plan has already been written into legislative budget documents as if the plan is a done deal although not even a single vote has been taken.
As I have noted many times before, Bedke said on stage in 2014 that the Legislature is “an arena of ideas.”
“So if you bring an idea, then with very few exceptions … those ideas need to be heard, and then vote up or down on ‘em. And then if you lose, then bring a better idea next time. It’s not the end of the world. We’ve got to start this public dialogue on some of these issues,” Bedke told a Boise audience.
He probably wishes he hadn’t said it. Or that he’d been clearer in his meaning. What he meant to say is that the Legislature is an arena of ideas for the connected few. It’s not an arena for your ideas as conveyed by the people you elected to the Legislature. Lawmakers are just there to make the Statehouse look like it’s still “the people’s house.”
Witness the action of Rep. Steve Harris, the chairman of the House’s tax committee. Appointed to the job by Bedke, Harris told Rep. Ron Nate last week that Nate’s plan to get rid of the state’s grocery tax won’t get a hearing. That’s a particularly perplexing position for Harris, who years ago supported eliminating the grocery tax, voted for it, and joined Nate’s lawsuit arguing that the Legislature’s grocery tax repeal should have become law.
You’d think that with high inflation hurting people at the grocery store checkouts that Nate’s proposal would be worthy of at least discussing. Apparently not. Because Harris says so, and he answers to Bedke, not the voters of Harris’s southwest Idaho district.
This is the year for lawmakers to take bold action on taxes. There’s nothing bold about Little’s income tax reduction proposal, and it should not be the final word on Idaho tax policy.
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