Governor gives in, signs deeply flawed property tax bill ramrodded through Idaho Legislature

·5 min read

Idaho’s Republican legislators wasted weeks and weeks and weeks on silly legislation while ignoring one of the top concerns among voters: property tax relief.

Had they spent as much time on property tax solutions as they spent on rooting out critical race theory, monument name changes and trying to cancel Powerball because of gun restrictions in Australia, they would have come up with fact-based, research-driven solutions after listening to testimony from tax experts, local officials and others affected by the issue.

Scott McIntosh is the Idaho Statesman’s opinion editor.
Scott McIntosh is the Idaho Statesman’s opinion editor.

Instead, after 18 weeks — 18 weeks! — in session, Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star, ramrodded a complex, multifaceted property tax bill through both the House and the Senate in three days at the end of the longest session in Idaho history.

What happens when you rush a complicated bill through the Legislature without considering facts, research, experts or testimony from city and county officials?

You get bad legislation.

In tossing a bone to those who recognize that raising the homeowners exemption is the best way to provide property tax relief to homeowners, Moyle raised it from $100,000 to $125,000.

That seems like a good thing, sure, but had the Republican-dominated Legislature not capped the exemption in 2016, it would be worth $149,525 this year, according to the Idaho State Tax Commission.

With dramatically rising residential property values, that means agriculture and commercial land will get let off the hook once again, and homeowners will pick up even more of the property tax burden than they already do.

To make matters worse, Moyle made the state’s “circuit breaker” program more difficult to qualify for.

The circuit breaker is a successful program in that it provides targeted relief to those who really need it.

Moyle has been fond of talking about an elderly woman he knows who’s been a victim of rising property taxes on her home. However, if her property’s assessed value is more than 125% the median value of homes in the county, tough luck to grandma. That’s because that’s a new requirement Moyle tacked onto his bill. Grandma’s property tax bill could actually increase under his legislation.

Finally, Moyle’s bill is a complicated set of requirements for local city and county spending. Its impacts will be felt by nearly every level of government, from the biggest cities and counties down to your local fire department, library and mosquito abatement district. Yet, the bill got ramrodded through in three days with little to no input from those local officials to convey to legislators what those impacts may be.

It contains a seemingly arbitrary 8% limit on budgets, 80% limits on annexation valuation, 90% limit on valuation of new construction — numbers that appear to come from out of thin air, similar to the arbitrary 125% median value of homes to qualify for the circuit breaker and $125,000 for the homeowners exemption. No study, no testimony, no research, just some numbers Moyle apparently came up with last Tuesday to present to the Legislature.

In Moyle’s mind, cities and counties “just want more,” as he put it to Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press, rubbing his fingers and thumb together, signifying money, as if city council members and county commissioners are just money-grubbers rather than public officials just trying to make sure a police car gets to your house in an emergency.

A very quick look at Moyle’s bill shows that it’s full of problems that would actually do damage and in some cases make things even worse if enacted.

But that’s what you get when you pass legislation in three days when you had 18 weeks to pass something that actually would have been helpful, meaningful and effective.

Gov. Brad Little has been on a tear lately trying to appease the right wingers of his party, pulling out of federal unemployment programs, signing a bill to make initiatives more difficult, even signing legislation that takes away a governor’s powers in an emergency.

He’s playing political calculus here in these waning days of the worst legislative session ever.

Unfortunately, Little on Wednesday signed the bill.

In yet another remarkable letter of approval that sounded more like a veto letter, Little explained his misgivings.

“I do have significant concerns with the process leading up to the passage of House Bill 389 as well as its practical implications,” Little wrote.

“I am supportive of the increase in the homeowner’s exemption from $100,000 to $125,000, but the near-exponential increases in home valuations mean the exemption will only slow the property tax increases for many Idahoans and not provide long-term relief. I am also supportive of updating the circuit breaker credit to ensure that our veterans, elderly, and lower-income populations can afford to stay in their homes, but I fear these changes may have unintended consequences for some individuals and families.

“I have always subscribed to the adage that our taxes need to be fair, simple, competitive, and predictable. When considered against these pillars of tax policy, House Bill 389 falls short. The bill is an aggregate of complex and nuanced changes to Idaho’s property tax code, and I am troubled that this was introduced in the waning days of the longest legislative session in Idaho history.”

I fear this bill actually does more harm than doing nothing. Little should have vetoed the damaging bill, so that legislators could go back to the drawing board and spend more than three days working on something that has such far-reaching implications and impact.

Unfortunately, now we’re going to witness the negative effects of this bad legislation.

Scott McIntosh is the opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at smcintosh@idahostatesman.com or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.