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A Caldwell lawmaker plans to introduce a bill later this month that would boost the state’s sales tax to 7% and funnel that money to schools.

This may be a lofty goal — the jury’s still out on how businesses and school districts would respond — but we welcome any ideas to address Idaho’s inadequate funding of education.

As it is, too many school districts — four out of five statewide — rely on supplemental levies, a property tax that requires voter approval every two years.

This not only creates a stressful cycle for educators, but it puts a tough choice before homeowners. Skyrocketing home values — and, in turn, property taxes — aren’t just a burden for seniors on a fixed income, as we heard from Ada County Assessor Bob McQuade this week.

“The other people being hit are people in their early 30s, with school debt, paying for day care,” he said. “Those people are struggling, too.”

We urge the Legislature to make it a top priority this year to diversify the revenue streams for schools and reduce reliance on property taxes.

Republican Sen. Jim Rice of Caldwell, who is pitching this bill, said a one-cent sales tax increase would raise roughly $280 million in its first year. That’s enough to cover the $214 million that school districts are currently collecting through supplemental levies, as Idaho Education News has reported.

Another $30 million from the new sales tax revenue, under Rice’s proposal, would go to a special fund for grocery tax relief.

We recognize concerns with increasing the sales tax. Would it hurt Idaho businesses in border towns? A 7% sales tax would be higher than any of our neighboring states, and Oregon and Montana have no sales tax at all.

Another concern is, would a 7% sales tax push lawmakers even further away from supporting a local option sales tax? The Legislature for years has opposed a local option sales tax, except for in resort towns. If the Legislature would extend that authority to all counties and cities, Canyon County voters, for example, could approve an extra penny in the county’s sales tax in order to fund a new jail, or Boise voters could pass a sales tax increase to fund public transit. Support for this local authority is strong among counties, cities and business groups, but not among lawmakers, who worry about having a patchwork of tax rates that creates inequality and disadvantages for businesses.

A potential drawback of Rice’s proposal is it eliminates school districts’ option to run a supplemental levy. We support diversifying revenue streams for education, but why limit school districts in the process? A supplemental levy could still be a valuable tool for districts, and we don’t want to see that local authority stripped away.

There’s still a lot to discuss around this idea, and it’s important for residents and educators to also weigh in. The Legislature can’t push this issue down the road any longer — 2020 is the year we must take substantial steps toward a better method for funding schools.

Just look at the strain our current system puts on educators. Nampa’s supplemental levy, which supports teacher salaries, curriculum updates, lobby security and building repairs, to name a few, failed in November by just 10 votes. School officials will try again in March. We’re nervous to see what kind of cuts might be on the table if the measure fails again.

Education is the foundation for a state’s success, and Idaho can’t afford to keep limping along and expecting districts to fill the gaps. If lawmakers can solve just one issue this year, it must be education funding.

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