Josh Whitworth screenshot proptax

Josh Whitworth, chief deputy state controller, makes a presentation to state lawmakers on the Property Tax and Revenue Expenditures interim committee on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020 at the state Capitol. The hybrid meeting included attendees both in person and on Zoom; it was streamed live online on Idaho Public Television's "InSession" service.

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The first of three recommendations the Idaho Legislature’s property tax interim committee is considering this morning is a 21-page bill that would create a new uniformity and transparency program for local government budgets through the Idaho state controller’s office, utilizing the office’s Transparent Idaho website. It would gather all the budget and expenditure data from as many as 1,500 local taxing districts across the state, from mosquito abatement districts to cities, counties and school districts, and make it easily available to the public and decision makers alike.

Josh Whitworth, chief deputy controller, said, “The more we know, the better the decisions that you as leaders can make across the state.”

He estimated that the multi-year project would cost $1.7 million in its first year and require four new state staffers, with annual operating costs after the first year of $1.3 million. Among the first tasks would be to develop uniform accounting standards to allow comparison between the widely varying financial systems of the different agencies and districts.

“Our goal in this is not to put the weight onto the local districts, it’s to take that on so it’s not a burden there,” Whitworth told lawmakers. Staffers would include a program manager, a software developer, and two business analysts. Additional existing staff within the controller’s office also would be utilized.

Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, asked whether it was really the role of the Legislature to tell locally elected government officials they ought to change their budgets. Whitworth said, “We’re giving anybody and anybody access to this information, so that they can have that discussion.” Benefits, he said, could include deterring fraud, public attention to expenditures prompting more prudent spending decisions, and more. He compared it to private companies’ expenditures of millions to develop analytics about what they do. “It can produce results, and they have seen that,” he said. “We’re grabbing data so you can analyze it and make more informed decisions. That’s what this is about.”

The state controller’s office developed the proposal at the request of the committee, after members expressed repeated frustration about difficulty in comparing and analyzing spending by various local government entities as they looked into why Idaho’s property taxes have been growing so quickly.

Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, said the information should include some explanation along with the numbers, comparing it to the Legislative Budget Book, which includes at least brief explanations of all expenditures. Sen. Jim Rice, R-Nampa, said any explanations would be political, and just data should be provided.

Whitworth said when data is analyzed, things emerge that might not otherwise have been noticed. “There are savings to be had,” he said.

Rep. Rod Furniss, R-Rigby, enthusiastically praised the proposal. "This program that we're putting together ... will show benefits year after year after year," he said. "We'll be able to see how each entity is functioning and what cost savings between those entities can be had, once we have the data."

After Whitworth's presentation, the committee took a break; when it returns, it will move on to a proposal about fund balances.

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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