Thursday, October 7, 2010

Debate gains steam over Idaho constitutional amendments

Posted By on Thu, Oct 7, 2010 at 3:48 PM

Two measures slated for the November ballot pit voter’s rights against economic development and could change the way hospitals and airports fund capital projects.

The complex issues were played out on Oct. 6 at the monthly luncheon of the Boise Young Professionals.

A 2006 Idaho Supreme Court decision blocked the Boise airport from building a parking garage and halted the ability of airports and hospitals to incur debt without voter’s approval. Passage of HJR 4 and HJR 5 would allow governments to enter into long-term debt without voter’s approval.

Proponents say the measures would allow them to fund expansions and improvements the way did for 30 some years — before the 2006 ruling. But one of the proposal’s most vocal opponents said the resolutions would thwart voter’s rights.

“No group came forward and said, ‘We’re tired of voting and want politicians to decide what to do with our money,” said Boise Guardian editor, photojournalist and activist, David Frazier, who brought the case against the Boise airport to Idaho’s high court.

Frazier said he isn’t against economic development; he just wants to see the voter’s have their say whenever government takes on a debt. But backers say the measures give them the tools they need to fund improvements and expansions at public institutions.

“We would like to go back to the way we did business for 30 years without problems,” said Toni Lawson, Idaho Hospital Association vice president of governmental relations.

Measure HJR 4 allows public hospitals to incur debt without an election to acquire facilities, equipment, technology and real property as long as other revenues — not taxpayer dollars — pay the bill. A second proposal, HJR 5 would allow airports to issue non-taxpayer backed bonds for capital improvements without a vote.

Lawson told voters at a recent panel discussion that Idaho’s 20 public — and mostly rural — hospitals sometimes need to go into debt to implement up-to date technology and maintain a high standard of care. She said higher property taxes could be levied if governments need to fund improvements but can’t go into debt without voter’s approval.

“If no taxpayer dollars are being used, it makes no sense … to jump through an election,” Lawson said. “However, your dollars will be used every time we have to organize and election to buy an MRI machine.”

Lawson joined Boise Airport Commission Chair, Paul Cunningham, in defending the measures as a way to maintain competiveness and fill in funding gaps left by revenue shortfalls. Cunningham said a 20-year airport master plan predicts a 15 percent funding shortfall between revenue and development needs.

“We need to have revenue bonds as a means to help,” he said.

Proponents say the amendments don’t usurp voter’s rights as elections maintain fiscal accountability. Without passage of the amendment, Cunningham said voter-based financial decisions, “almost boarder on micromanaging very complex public institutions.”

But Frazier said the status quo not only protects the Idaho constitution from amendment over minor issues but guards the voice of the voter.

“The people have the right to weigh in on how their money is being spent, regardless of the source,” Frazier said. “All I’m asking for is that safeguard.”

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