Gov. Brad Little’s decision to apply $200 million of Idaho’s $1.25 billion federal CARES Act funds to property tax relief is a smart one. After months of deserved criticism, finally, a chance to say something positive about the governor’s handling of Covid-19.
Little’s staff estimates the tax relief plan could mean lower property taxes by up to 20 percent for landowners. To do that, Little is promising local governments that the state will use the federal government’s Coronavirus cash to cover police, fire, and ambulance costs. The catch: Localities agree to hold the line on property tax collections. In short, if local officials opt to expand government, they will be deliberately choosing to deny property owners a credit against property taxes due. The governor's idea is clever and the most helpful produced to date.
Little’s other coronavirus programs and responses earn no flattery from me.
The state has begun spending $7 million on what seems a pointless coronavirus-inspired marketing campaign. The campaign basically consists of a 30-second video montage of Idahoans proving they know how to don a mask. Viewers are directed to a website where they can pledge to adhere to Covid-19 health guidelines. Why does the state of Idaho need to create a database of names and addresses of residents who have pledged to wash their hands and cover their faces?
Meanwhile, with promised checks of up to $1,500 per worker, the governor has set aside $100 million to bribe unemployed Idahoans to go back to work. This program is the product of a cascading series of mistakes. It started when the governor summarily closed businesses, which pushed thousands of Idahoans to file for unemployment benefits. Those unemployment benefits were sweetened with a congressional Christmas gift of an extra $600 a week.
Idahoans, predictably, inundated the unemployment system to claim the money. This resulted in extensive and ongoing delays in the processing and payment of benefits. The problem is so bad that the governor’s Coronavirus Financial Advisory Committee voted Thursday to give a no-bid contract to an out-of-state call center to work through a backlog of unemployment claims. Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin voted against the $3 million proposal, arguing the state is paying three times what it should for the service.
Meanwhile, Little’s administration is threatening business owners who tried to save themselves and their employees by opening ahead of the governor’s edicts. Two examples: Hardware Brewing in Kendrick and Slick’s Bar in Nampa face fines of $2,500 and the possible loss of their state-issued licenses.
And now, Little appears poised to approve a government handout in the form of rent and utility assistance to Idahoans late on their bills. The program was advanced by Boise Democrat Rep. Melissa Wintrow.
The rent and utility assistance program won the endorsement of the governor’s coronavirus committee, with McGeachin again as the lone dissenter. The program would pay an uncapped amount of money to cover each recipients’ rent and utilities, even though, as I explained to the committee members, it means taxpayers will very likely subsidize renters who made poor decisions, who spent too much for housing or kept the air conditioning running all the time. The rent assistance program is slated to start with $5 million, but it could balloon to $15 million.
Little is truly making up policy on the fly — and the Legislature continues to allow it to happen.
Legislative leaders have sought legal advice that validates their decision to remain impotent as the governor spends and creates whole new programs without lawmakers. Legislators also know that other lawyers believe the Legislature can convene and can act this summer to stop the madness. You should wonder why House Speaker Scott Bedke is content to sit on the sidelines while Democrat Wintrow is afforded more of a voice than him.
I’m elated that Little wants to use part of the CARES Act money to give property tax relief. No other state, so far, is doing that. I’d much rather fill this space writing only about the governor’s good ideas. Or the good ideas brought forward by lawmakers and their constituents. But this is a one man show. For now, expect more programs, more spending, more ideas, both good and bad, from Little.