How Special! 

Lawmakers chew on taxes, but community colleges wait

Yes, Idaho lawmakers will be back at the Statehouse this summer. No, you won't really know what their plan for property tax relief is until they vote on it. No, it won't be much of a surprise. But yes, they've set a date: August 25.

So while e-mails and telephone calls between lawmakers buzz with chatter about snipping the annual tax on your property, and maybe raising the sales tax, other dreams have taken wing.

Buried in that $200 million surplus that Gov. Jim Risch excitedly announced last week are the fantasies of other forgotten goals. Namely, community colleges.

Although Risch dismissed any ideas about cluttering what he hopes will be a one-day, get-'em-in, get-'em-out special session on taxes with other initiatives, not everyone is so obsessed with property levies.

When asked about leaving some money from the surplus on the table for future initiatives, Risch was coy initially, but allowed himself to say that one thing--community colleges--had been discussed.

"I probably shouldn't have said that, but I did," Risch said.

Hope springs eternal for lawmakers who say community colleges--a need the Legislature has yet to deliver on, but that has the support of major business groups--should get the capitol's full focus next year.

"This surplus, in my opinion, is a perfect opportunity for us as a state to step forward, and do something very significant on community colleges," said Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, an Idaho Falls Republican. "In conversations I've had with Gov. Risch, I've advocated that."

So when the time comes to divy up the surplus, Davis said he will be there to make sure some is left over to help the state create a system of secondary schools to help Idaho bolster its education system.

Of course, Idaho lawmakers are now doing what they seem to do best: Studying the issue in an interim committee. The chairman of that committee, Republican Sen. John Goedde of Coeur d'Alene, acknowledged the discussions but said he wasn't ready to talk about using the surplus for schools.

"I don't see how we could identify the surplus as a source" of funding, he said.

Stay tuned. For now, Democrats in the Legislature--remember them?--are out of the loop. But Tuesday they told reporters they had a plan of their own for lowering property taxes. Rather than shift school-funding measures to the sales tax, they proposed simple property tax relief, targeted exclusively at homeowners. They'd use $104 million of the surplus, said Sen. David Langhorst of Boise, thereby giving homeowners a 20 percent decrease.

"Our plan does not affect any other class of taxpayers," Langhorst said.

That could be the problem, according to Risch.

"When you start treating taxpayers differently, you get real constitutional issues," Risch said.

In response, Idaho Democratic Party staff offered a slice of Idaho's Constitution, which states, "the legislature may allow such exemptions from taxation from time to time."

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