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Idaho Legislative District 14 House and Senate candidates debated education, its funding and how it relates to taxation and growth at a Oct. 6 forum hosted by the Meridian Chamber of Commerce.

Discussions tackled a wide range of issues that face District 14 residents in North Meridian, Eagle and Star, including policy around auditorium and urban renewal districts and the debate over local-option sales tax authority. But the topic that came to the forefront was education.

Incumbent GOP Sen. C. Scott Grow, former chairman of the West Ada school board, aligned himself with his opponent, Independent Ellen Spencer, and some other candidates in saying he’ll push for school districts to be allowed to use impact fees if reelected. The fight to do so has met some resistance, but this revenue could help school districts build more schools to keep up with growth, Grow and Spencer said.

Revenue from impact fees, a one-time fee charged to a developer per new house or building, can go toward growth-related expenses for public facilities, such as a new park or fire station, but can’t go toward schools in Idaho.

Spencer, who works in risk management at the College of Western Idaho, said impact fees would help schools recover from “abysmal” funding, which she said needs to be increased at the state level.

Idaho House Majority Leader Mike Moyle (R) spent much of his time emphasizing that “to talk about raising taxes in this environment makes no sense,” but said he’d be open to schools using impact fees if that could replace supplemental levies and other localized property taxes that schools rely on.

Independent Cindy Currie, Moyle’s challenger for Seat A, is a chemistry teacher who currently teaches online. Though she disagreed with Moyle as he took issue with schools using online classes during the pandemic, Currie agreed that impact fees could help district budgets. She said schools must “eliminate the need for supplemental levies” to level “unevenness” in school funding statewide.

Currie also proposed exploring more online sales tax options, along with consolidating taxation and funding of schools at the state level, rather than leaving funding up to local districts. Moyle pushed back against mechanisms that would still rely on property taxes levied by the state.

“Does she realize that sales tax is a much stabler form of revenue for schools?” he asked amid a string of rhetorical questions casting doubt over Currie’s proposals.

During the 2020 session, Moyle advocated for the Legislature to levy higher sales taxes and lower property taxes; related proposals were discussed, but changes to the state sales tax were not signed into law.

In discussions separated from education, Moyle also said he would not support local authorities having the ability to levy their own sales taxes, unless overlapping districts gave their approval. Currie said she’d support local taxing authority.

Local-option sales tax authority would allow cities and counties to increase sales tax with voter approval. Idaho currently only gives this authority to resort towns.

Grow said he’d be open to cities, for example, levying sales taxes, but only if they demonstrate a funding need. Spencer, his opponent, said tax authority should be less restricted, generally supporting cities that choose to levy sales taxes if they vote to do so.

TRANSPORTATION

District 14 is home to large subdivisions, many housing commuters who drive their own cars to get to work. In response, Grow has focused much of his campaign, both during the forum and in his responses to a League of Women Voters survey, on completing infrastructure projects within the district.

“It’s imperative that we get Highway 16 extended to the freeway,” he said.

The Highway connects Emmett with more densely populated parts of the Treasure Valley, running between Eagle and Start and meeting Chinden Boulevard near Ten Mile Road. Several District 14 candidates echoed the need for another north-south corridor besides Eagle Road to connect western Ada County to the interstate.

Spencer said an initial investment in public transportation in the valley is her top priority. She argued that public transport could pay off in the long term through fees and unplug congested roadways in the meantime.

Currie said more of transportation costs should be footed by the state, because infrastructure improvements in one city benefit surrounding areas.

PARTISANSHIP

Shelley Brock, the sole Democrat in the district filed, couldn’t attend the forum due to a scheduling conflict. She’s set to face Republican incumbent Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt for Seat B.

With Spencer running as an Independent, some have apparently questioned whether she avoided running as a Democrat to gain a competitive edge in the red district. Spencer made the decision to run for the seat while she was a registered Democrat, but later changed her affiliation.

“I’ve recently been publicly accused of not being a true Independent, but rather a Democrat trying to finagle the system. For the record, both statements are false,” she wrote on social media. “Idaho does not recognize Independents as a party. Therefore, when I registered in Idaho, I registered as a Democrat. I did this because, between Democrat and Republican parties, I would have more latitude for personal choice as a Democrat. Prior to living in Idaho, I was an Independent.”

Currie on Tuesday said she’s running as an Independent “because neither party represents all of my values.”

While Spencer and Currie are Independents, they both listed A.J. Balukoff, a career small businessman and Democrat, as their campaign treasurer on campaign finance reports filed with the Idaho Secretary of State. Balukoff last ran for office in the 2018 gubernatorial race when he took second to Paulette Jordan in the Democratic primary.

Blake Jones covers Kuna and Meridian for the Idaho Press. You can reach him at bjones@idahopress.com and follow him on Twitter @jonesblakej.

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