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Idaho legislature opens special 'extraordinary' session

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Idaho Public TV screenshot
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The Idaho House and Senate taxation committees held a joint session Thursday morning during the legislature's session.

Lawmakers are considering the governor's proposal for a one-time tax rebate and increased education spending.

UPDATED: 2:50 pm: The bill has passed the House and moved on to a committee hearing in the Senate.

An Idaho House committee has taken a first step toward refunding part of the two billion dollar state surplus back to taxpayers.

Legislators are meeting today [Thursday] in what’s termed an “extraordinary” one-day session. The Revenue and Taxation Committee approved Governor Brad Little’s proposal to send one-time rebate checks totaling about $500 million.

Little also proposes a small dip in the state income tax rate, as well as about $400 million in permanent spending increases to public schools and universities.

During the committee hearing, a few speakers, including Lorna Mitson from Garden City, complained that all of those pieces are lumped into one large bill.

“Each one of you should have the opportunity to vote on each of these issues separately and oppose or reject each one individually. That is the spirit of the constitution, even if the attorney general says that it’s ok that with a really nice title, we can tie it all together," she said.

Speakers from the education and business communities said they support the governor’s commitment to public schools. Some said the extra money would allow them to take care of needs they don’t have money to pay for now.

Rob Sauer, the superintendent in the Homedale School District in Meridian, said more money from the state would allow him to provide better pay to some staff members.

“We raised our starting classified staff pay from $8.52 to $10 to $12 in the last two years,” he said. “Pick a major boulevard in Idaho and look at what many of the major fast food chains are advertising to start. We’re not competing very well with that.”

Others said the state has, in the last few years, vastly increased its commitment to schools. Representative Ben Adams, a Republican from Nampa, said it’s now up to teachers to prove they can show improvements in student performance.

Little's income tax rebate would return at least $300 to individual tax filers and $600 for joint filers. If approved, the governor says those checks could be mailed as early as this month. The governor also slight reduction in the state income tax, from 6% to 5.8%. He also proposes adding $330 million permanently to the state K-12 school budget and $80 million for career training in the higher education institutions.

After approval by the House committee, the proposal was sent to the full House for consideration. Senate leaders said they expect to take up the bill later this afternoon, assuming approval by the House.

Idaho school officials say they’ll watch today’s special legislative session with great interest.

This week, voters in the Coeur d’Alene and Boundary County school districts turned down ballot measures, leaving leaders such as Scott Maben in Coeur d’Alene wondering if they might get some relief from the state.

“There’s some indication or promise that some of that funding will be dedicated to K-12 education, but we need to wait and see what will happen with that before we really make any decisions about next levy attempt," he said.

The Bonners Ferry school bond issue would have paid to replace one old elementary school and make upgrades on a few other facilities. But it received only 40% support when it needed a two-thirds supermajority. Superintendent Jan Bayer, says her district could use state help on that, but she’s skeptical about whether that will be coming.

“Idaho does have a surplus right now. A study came out last year and it demonstrated how we are not in a position, facility-wise, where we should be and we had enough funds at a state level to completely rectify that situation and not a dime went to facilities. So the state needs to decide what needs to happen," Bayer said.