Eagle Road traffic (copy)

Northbound traffic along Eagle Road/state Highway 55 approaches Fairview Avenue on June 26. City and county leaders have for years requested state authority to bring local-option sales tax measure to voters to fund projects such as roads and transit; lawmakers, however, are hesitant to allow a patchwork of taxes.

Idaho counties and cities have been pleading with state lawmakers for decades to give them another way of funding basic local services and projects, from jails to courtrooms to roads, besides the much-hated property tax: Local-option sales taxes.

In Idaho, only resort cities with populations of less than 10,000 are allowed to ask their local voters if they want to impose a local sales tax. Fourteen have done so, from Sun Valley to Sandpoint, and from Donnelly to Victor.

But Boise can’t ask voters if they want to tack on another cent of sales tax to fund transit or other local priorities, like most major cities around the country do, according to the Tax Foundation. Other Idaho cities can’t turn to local sales taxes to fund fire stations or road improvements or police patrols. Canyon County can’t ask its citizens whether they’d be more supportive of funding a badly needed new jail if it could be paid for with sales taxes, rather than more property taxes.

“I’m not hearing a lot of support for local option, unfortunately, from the Legislature,” said Seth Grigg, executive director of the Idaho Association of Counties. “The voters, they’re feeling the pressure on the property tax side, and they’re just not inclined to pass a bond to pay for a jail. … Absent an alternative like a local option, I just don’t know how we’re going to build jails in the future.”

Key lawmakers and legislative leaders have long been hesitant to allow any local-option taxing authority; most taxing authority in Idaho is held by the Legislature itself. House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, who is among the most fervent opponents of the idea, said, “Local option is nothing more than a sales tax increase, and I don’t think it’s needed.”

But over the years, local officials have made the case to lawmakers that there’s more to it than that. In 1996, desperate to fund a new jail amid something of a property tax revolt, Kootenai County lawmakers finally convinced the Legislature to pass a local-option sales tax just for their county — with conditions including 60% approval from voters and half of the sales taxes raised going to property tax relief. You can read my full story here at idahopress.com (subscription required), or pick up today's Sunday/Monday edition of the Idaho Press; it's on the front page.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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