Only lawmakers can stop local governments from bleeding us dry

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Contrary to the famous marketing campaign, pork is not white meat. It’s red. I know this because the consumption of even the tiniest amount of red meat causes me to be covered in hives. Pork is no exception. This is the result of a tick that bit me when I was a teenager. (If you’re curious about my condition, Google “alpha-gal syndrome.”)

The other day, I thought a lot about that tiny critter, the source of my affliction. He shares some traits with the army of local government officials, like ticks on parade, who pleaded with legislators to let them keep siphoning ever more money from property taxpayers. For their part, those taxpayers were practically begging the same lawmakers for a break.

The little parasite that burrowed his head under my skin more than 30 years ago probably didn’t intend to hurt me, it just wanted my blood, just as local government officials don’t want to hurt people. To the contrary. They’re mostly decent people, the folks who work for cities, counties, highway districts, and other taxing entities. 

That might explain why local officials’ testimony before the House Revenue and Taxation Committee over multiple days seemed so tone deaf as it could be as concerns Idahoans whose rising property taxes may cost them their homes if House Bill 409 doesn’t pass. The bill would simply institute a one-year freeze on total property tax collections. All that means is that Idaho’s taxing districts would receive in 2020 exactly what they got from property taxes in 2019. No more and no less. The bill won’t reduce everyone’s property taxes, but it could provide some relief for many.

Bingham County Commissioner Mark Bair testified that state mandates drive the county’s budget. He’s so focused on the county’s need for more cash, he’s been able to intellectually separate the plight of taxpayers from the county commission’s decision last year to give each county employee a 50-cent per-hour raise because percentage increases “wouldn’t be fair,” according to county minutes (nor I guess would merit-based raises). The county also recently — and “generously,” say county records — decided to have taxpayers pick up all the increased costs of county employee health insurance.

The city of Caldwell sent its communications specialist, Chelsea Wilson, to plead the city’s case. She and her colleagues are seemingly oblivious to the irony of using the government entity’s paid publicist to claim poverty. Coincidently, as Wilson was lobbying the Legislature with broad claims about how the city wouldn’t be able to afford new firefighters, the city’s urban renewal agency was planning to spend $2.4 million of redirected property taxes for a new county fair building. I think I found some money for your firefighters, Caldwell. 

An official from Twin Falls County testified against House Bill 409. I suspect Twin Falls County officials haven’t made the  connection between rising property taxes and the county’s decision several years ago to join the state pension system. The county approved the move in 2015 knowing that it would be more costly than the county’s old retirement system because the lion’s share of the nearly 20 percent in contributions toward each government employee’s pension is from taxpayers.

Representatives of both local government lobbying organizations, the Association of Idaho Cities and the Idaho Association of Counties spoke in opposition to House Bill 409, and tried to convince legislators to drop the freeze on property tax collections. I wondered if either organization, or the county and city officials that fund them, recognize that they took money from beleaguered taxpayers to lobby the Legislature in opposition to taxpayers. Maybe not.

I never met the tick that left me with a lifetime of food allergies. That one little critter causes me several days of misery every year, no matter how careful I am with my diet. But at least a parasite knows when to stop sucking, whereas local government officials will keep at it until their hosts are bled dry. 

That is, unless lawmakers are willing to intervene.