BOISE — The Idaho House and Senate went into full political battle mode Friday over property tax relief.
The Senate introduced two bills to raise the homeowner’s exemption and the “circuit breaker” tax break for needy Idahoans, a day after killing the House-passed property tax freeze bill.
The House retaliated by hijacking an obscure Senate bill and amending it into a measure that would raise the homeowner’s exemption, but also cut $32 million a year from county and other local government budgets.
“This increase will be taken out of the new construction rolls,” Rep. Robert Anderst, R-Nampa, told the House as he opened debate on the GOP leadership-backed amendment, which he co-sponsored with House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star.
Minority Democrats in the House decried the proposal, saying it not only would hurt fast-growing communities with lots of new construction, it would harm the very local agencies responsible for emergency response as the state faces a public health emergency over the coronavirus.
“The counties are on the front line of dealing with this,” said House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise. “They are the ones who run the emergency response services.”
“Just yesterday we passed $2 million to do emergency funding, and now we’re going to take 16 times more than that away from the local governments who are supposed to be overseeing that emergency response,” Rubel said. “I’m kind of amazed that we’re having this discussion.”
“We have to stop playing political games,” declared Rep. Lauren Necochea, D-Boise. “This amendment is a radical change and will have radical impacts on local budgets. … The august body across the rotunda gave us some very clear signals this morning as to what they were willing to do on property taxes. This is not it.”
Anderst countered, “When we started this session and throughout this session, property taxes has been a central point of discussion. There have been a lot of discussions around this issue. We have passed legislation and sent it across the rotunda, and it did die there. However, that doesn’t mean that we should stop trying.”
The amendment carried on a straight party-line vote, with all House Republicans in favor and all House Democrats opposed. The House is scheduled to debate the newly amended bill, SB 1277a, on Monday morning.
Meanwhile, the Senate State Affairs Committee had voted unanimously several hours earlier to introduce its own new bills, one to raise the homeowner’s by $20,000 to $120,000 and reinstitute the inflation indexing that lawmakers repealed in 2016; and the other to increase the “circuit breaker” property tax break for the low-income elderly.
“This represents true property tax relief, and I think we oughta have a chance to consider it,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise.
The circuit breaker hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since 2006.
“This is a property tax relief program for the most vulnerable Idahoans. These are folks who are 65 or older, widows, the blind, the fatherless and motherless, former prisoners of war, the veterans who are disabled,” said Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Kelly Anthon, R-Burley. He said despite fast-rising property taxes, use of the program has actually dropped in recent years because it’s so out of date.
Moyle was in the Capitol’s Lincoln Auditorium, where the Senate committee was meeting, before the votes, and he was none too happy about the Senate’s move. “I think it’s telling that they want to try to find a solution, and since they voted down real property tax relief, they try to introduce some bills to cover” their backsides, he said. “They know they’re not going anywhere,” Moyle declared. “They’re the Senate. Tax stuff comes from the House.”
Moyle cited an “unwritten rule” to that effect. However, Winder said the Idaho Constitution only requires bills that raise revenue to start in the House; neither of these bills raise state revenues.
Asked why the House Revenue & Taxation Committee has never introduced any bills this session to address the homeowner’s exemption or the circuit breaker, though multiple bills have been filed there since January, Moyle said, “We were going to — they said they would pass this bill, then we would do it.”
He was referring to HB 409, his proposal for a one-year freeze on local government property tax collections, a proposal strongly opposed by local governments in Idaho which the Senate amended into a three-year, 4% cap, but then resoundingly rejected on the Senate floor on Thursday.
That’s the bill that Moyle cited as “real property tax relief,” saying, “Most people aren’t going to see any benefit from the homeowner’s exemption.”
Asked what happens next, he said, “Watch what we do in the House this morning — just watch what we do.”
Two hours later, House GOP leaders shifted SB 1277, a measure sponsored by Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, to require a standard application form for the homeowner’s exemption to be used by all Idaho counties, to the House’s amending order, though no committee had voted to send it there, as is the usual procedure.
Both houses have been pushing hard to adjourn this year’s legislative session as quickly as possible, given the coronavirus concerns, but the property tax relief fight is just one of several looming issues still not addressed.