By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports
With 15 people testifying, the tax cut and education funding bill discussed in the Idaho Legislature’s special session sailed through committee in a unanimous voice vote Thursday.
In the interest of time, the House Revenue and Taxation Committee held a joint hearing with the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee to hear public testimony on House Bill 1.
The House later approved the bill in a 55-15 vote.
The Senate still must vote on the bill before it can pass.
Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, sponsored the bill and introduced it to the committee. He said that if the bill passes, income tax rebate checks could go out as early as September. It would create a flat income and corporate tax rate of 5.8 percent.
After testimony was taken, Senate members left and the House committee voted unanimously to move the bill forward.
The bill would provide income tax rebates, ongoing income tax cuts, and $400 million in education funding. Gov. Brad Little said he called the special session to deal with inflation and the state’s budget surplus.
Blackfoot School District Superintendent Brian Kress testified in support of the bill, saying he was an advocate for students.
“Today we have the opportunity to show our kids that they deserve more, that they deserve better,” Kress said.
Other education stakeholder groups, including the Idaho Education Association and Idaho School Board Association, testified in support of the bill.
Zach Borman, president of the West Ada Education Association, testified in support of the legislation.
“The truth is our students are being shortchanged and have been for some time,” Borman told the committee. “Educational resources are stretched too thin. Classrooms are overcrowded. Educators increasingly find themselves simply trying to fend off chaos, and exhaustion at the expense of engaging students in learning and building valuable skills.”
He pointed to increasing class sizes and growth in the West Ada School District, but said “this legislation is a good step forward.”
Testifiers in opposition questioned whether the provisions on education funding and tax relief should be grouped together in one bill.
Jackie Davidson, a legislative candidate in Ada County, questioned whether the legislation was constitutional under Idaho’s requirement that bills address a single subject.
An Attorney General’s opinion, drafted Aug. 26 by chief deputy attorney general Nicole McKay, answered questions on the single subject rule from Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise.
In a copy of the opinion obtained by Idaho Reports, the Attorney General’s Office analyzed whether the two subjects – taxes and education – could hold up in one bill. The opinion said the bill does not appear vulnerable to challenge in court.
While the House committee ultimately supported the legislation, several lawmakers also expressed concern about addressing taxes and education funds together in one bill.
Rep. Charlie Shepard, R-Pollock, supported the bill in committee but said he was concerned about the precedent the bill may set.
“I think this is a dangerous road to go down,” Shepard said.
Rep. Ben Adams, R-Nampa, said in committee the tax cut was easy to support for him, but he urged caution to school administrators.
“We’re doing our best to help you, but the ball’s in your court. Now we need to see something coming from you,” Adams said. “These are public funds and the public needs something back for their investment.”
The bill would also not interfere with Proposition 1 appearing on the November ballot, according to the Attorney General’s Office. But if the special session bill passes this week, its effective date would supersede the effective date of the proposition, even if voters pass it in the general election, according to the opinion.
“If both Prop 1 and (the bill) are enacted, the effective dates in both laws would result in (the bill) supplanting Prop 1 on January 3, 2023,” according to the AG’s opinion.
Proposition 1 would increase taxes for people with income above $250,000 or $500,000 for joint filers. The initiative would also increase the corporate income tax.
On the House floor, Rep. Lauren Necochea, D-Boise, pointed out that this bill would undo the work of Reclaim Idaho’s ballot initiative and, while it’s not illegal, “it violates the spirit of the Constitution.”
Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, called the special session “a fake emergency” and was frustrated that they could only address the bill the governor proposed, rather than multiple bills.
“We are limited to one bill,” said Vander Woude. “I think the openness and the discussion needs to be much broader than what this bill allows.”
Rep. Heather Scott, R- Blanchard, also criticized the governor’s office and the bill. She wanted to divide the bill into separate issues for separate votes, and asked to suspend House Rule 54.
“The Legislature didn’t write this bill,” Scott said. “The executive branch wrote this bill.”
In a 22-48 vote, Scott didn’t receive the needed support and the motion to suspend the rule failed.
Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, said he knew of at least three other bills addressing taxes that did not get a hearing during the special session, and called the committee process “broken.”
“There are lots of ways to tackle this issue where families are hurting from inflation,” Nate said.
He argued that the rebates in the governor’s bill are only a fraction of the state’s $2 billion surplus.
Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, made a motion to send the bill to general orders so lawmakers could amend it. “I don’t feel comfortable with voting on a bill in this manner,” she said.
Nichols’ motion failed in a 13-57 vote.
Harris said he felt the motions to change the trajectory of the bill were “hostile.”
“The only thing being hostile here is the hostility to our Constitution,” Scott said.
As the debate went on, lawmakers began to get short-tempered with each other. House Speaker Scott Bedke said “We’re starting to push each other’s buttons, I don’t know that that serves us well.”
After more than two hours of debate, the bill passed the House 55-15.
The bill must be approved by the Senate Local Government and Tax Committee and the full Senate before becoming law.