BOISE — The Idaho House on Jan. 30 voted 48-21 in favor of legislation to prohibit taxing districts, including cities, counties and school districts, from rerunning a bond proposal for 11 months after one fails.
“The purpose of HB 347 is to protect voters from aggressive taxing districts that can and do continually run bonds over and over again when they fail at the ballot boxes,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, told the House. “It’s a simple bill that recognizes the wishes and will of the voters for at least 11 months.”
The bill would prohibit “a bond question of the same type or subject” for 11 months, regardless of whether the proposal has been altered or the amount reduced.
Bonds votes are required before districts can go into debt to finance major capital investments, like new schools; they obligate patrons to pay higher property taxes over a period of years to pay off the project. Bond votes in Idaho require a two-thirds supermajority; it’s not uncommon for districts that get just short of the two-thirds mark to try again, usually with a lower amount.
“This is government asking people for money,” Scott told the House. “We limit election cycles all the time,” as when legislators are elected to serve a two-year term. “What if your opponent could challenge you three months later?” she asked. “And then when they lose a second time, they challenge you again after a couple more months?”
Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, a longtime teacher, opposed the bill, noting that several of Idaho’s neighboring states require lower margins to pass school bonds, including simple majorities in Montana and Utah and a 60% requirement in Washington; and that Idaho has limited school bond votes to four specific election dates each year.
“Let’s not take that local control away from our districts,” she said.
Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, a retired school superintendent, told the House, “We should stop and think about what’s our role, what’s the locals’ role. … We let them figure out their own problems, and not make rules for outliers.”
Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, said her local school board wants to “just keep taxing us to death,” and they “flat won’t listen, so I definitely support this bill.”
Rep. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls, called Scott’s bill “a great concept,” adding, “I wish it went a little bit further.”
Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, said, “I’m a parent. When my children ask me the same question over and over again, I get parent fatigue.” She said it’s the same for voters: They get “voter fatigue” and get worn down by repeated requests.
Scott declared, “This law is addressing the bad actors out there that are not respecting the people.”
The bill now heads to the Senate, where similar House-passed legislation died in 2018. The 2018 measure, HB 639, passed the House narrowly, 37-32. It also was sponsored by Scott.
In recent years, several bond measures in the Treasure Valley were reintroduced after failing a first attempt.
The Wilder, Parma and Middleton school districts had bond measures fail in March 2018, and all three reintroduced bond measures that summer. In August 2018, Wilder and Middleton’s failed again, while Parma’s passed.
The Middleton School District ran three bond elections in 2018, without ever getting two-thirds approval from voters. After a single $28.8 million bond measure failed in both March and August, the district broke the bond into three separate parts for the November ballot; all three failed. Middleton School District Superintendent Sherawn Reberry could not be reached for comment on the bill Thursday.
Bonds help school districts fund school construction and renovations, land purchases, and equipment.
“These are major purchases that exceed general fund dollars and are restricted to facility-related uses,” Nampa School District spokeswoman Kathleen Tuck said in an email.
Of the 257 bond elections held in Idaho since 2002, only 6% (or 16) were back-to-back, Tuck said, citing data from the Idaho School Boards Association.
Idaho’s largest school district, West Ada, put a $104 million bond measure on the ballot in August of 2014. The measure was unsuccessful, so the school district put a $96 million bond measure on the ballot seven months later, when it passed.
Eric Exline, spokesman for the West Ada School District, said in an email that the bill that would limit re-votes could delay the completion of “much needed school projects.”
For example, when West Ada ran a successful bond measure in 2018 — a $95 million bond meant to build a new high school and elementary school — four out of five of West Ada’s large high schools were over capacity “by hundreds of students,” Exline said, but because of the length of construction time, the new high school won’t open until fall 2021, more than three years after the 2018 bond passed.
“In the meantime, our high schools continue to grow,” Exline said. “For example, Rocky Mountain High … currently is 637 students over capacity. It will be larger next year. If this legislation were in place in 2018, the earliest the school would have opened would be fall 2022. This isn’t good for kids.”
Tuck said Idaho is “unique” in the northwestern U.S. “in regard to the number of restrictions placed on schools seeking bonds” — in particular, the requirement for a supermajority and the limited opportunities per year to get a bond measure on the ballot.
“Last year the Legislature also decided what language districts could use on the ballot,” Tuck said. “Now they want to add a waiting period should a bond issue fail at the polls. Despite these restrictions, the Idaho Constitution compels us to provide an appropriate and thorough education for our kids — a goal districts support but struggle to adequately fund.”
The Nampa School District hasn’t introduced a bond measure for new construction since 2008 and has never introduced a bond measure on back-to-back ballots — although it will rerun a supplemental levy request that failed in November on a March ballot.
CANYON COUNTY BONDS
Canyon County has attempted to pass a bond for a new jail four times since 2006, including two elections within 11 months of each other.
The most recent bond attempt, a $187 million measure in May 2019, only garnered 34% support from voters. Previous attempts in May 2006, November 2009 and August 2010 gained 57% to 58% support, but the price tag was much lower, ranging from $72.5 million in 2006 to $46 million in 2009 and 2010.
Canyon County spokesman Joe Decker said House Bill 347 would have little consequence to the county since it has typically waited longer than 11 months to rerun the jail bond.
“I think it is mainly for the school districts,” he said.