Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Voters to weigh in on state Constitution

University tuition also on ballot


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

The focus of Idaho election coverage has been on the candidates running for various city, county and state offices, but there are also four amendments to the state Constitution listed on this year's ballot, awaiting voters' consideration.

Three of the four amendments focus on roughly the same issue: Should cities that run electrical systems, airports and hospitals be allowed to incur debt without voter approval?

The debt would be used to build new facilities or purchase equipment and land, with the purpose of increasing revenue. The revenue would then be used to pay off the debt.

While airports, hospitals and cities that provide electricity can already incur debt to improve facilities, Idaho law requires them to obtain two-thirds approval by voters.

Such a vote would still be required if taxes were going to be used to pay off the debt involved. Bond funds to pay for new electrical system purchases would need to be approved by a simple majority.

According to an election pamphlet provided by the Idaho secretary of state, arguments for the amendments tend to focus on the ways in which improving hospitals and airports will create jobs and boost Idaho's economy.

However, all three reduce the influence of voters on how much debt airports, hospitals and cities can take on, as well as how the funds are used. Another argument against all four amendments is that constitutional amendments should be reserved for cases of "major interest" to the state or in the event of a constitutional crisis.

The fourth amendment, which appears first on the ballot, would allow the University of Idaho to charge residents tuition rather than just student fees. Currently, the University of Idaho charges Idaho residents from $2,700 to more than $6,000 in fees per semester. Under the Idaho Constitution, the university's fees cannot be used to pay for classroom instruction, which is currently funded by a combination of taxpayer funds and additional tuition charged to out-of-state students. If the state began charging residents tuition, those funds could be used to help defray the costs of instruction.

While all other state-supported colleges and universities in Idaho can and do charge tuition, the university pre-dates Idaho's statehood and is a land-grant college, founded for the purpose of providing free education to residents in the areas of agriculture, science and engineering.

The amendment would not set any fees or tuition, but rather allow the Idaho State Board of Education to do so.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com

The 4 proposed amendments:

- S.J.R. 101:  Should the Constitution of Idaho be changed to allow the University of Idaho to charge tuition, as opposed to just the student fees it currently charges?

- A "yes" vote would not set a rate of tuition or require the university to charge tuition, only allow it to use collected funds to pay for classes. All other state universities and colleges are allowed to charge tuition.

- A "no" vote would limit the university charges to fees only, as is currently the case. The state would continue to provide funding from its own budget to cover the costs of classroom instruction.

- H.J.R. 4: Should the Constitution be changed to allow public hospitals to take out loans for new equipment, land or other items without voter approval, so long as taxes won't be used to pay back those loans?

-  A "yes" vote would allow public hospitals to go into debt without voter approval, in order to invest in new equipment and facilities.

- A "no" vote would maintain the requirement of a two-thirds vote in favor of all public hospital debt incurred for improvements.

- H.J.R. 5: Should the Constitution be changed to allow airport authorities to issue revenue bonds to pay for new land, buildings or equipment without voter approval, so long as taxes won't be used to repay the bond?

- A "yes" vote would allow airport authorities to secure funding more quickly.

- A "no" vote would maintain the requirement that such spending be approved by a two-thirds majority. As land owned by airport facilities is tax-exempt, a "no" vote could prevent an increase in tax-exempt land.

- H.J.R. 7: Should the Constitution be changed to allow cities that distribute power to issue revenue bonds to pay for new equipment, so long as it's approved by a majority of voters and does not involve tax dollars? Should cities also be allowed to go into debt to buy, sell or transmit electricity without voter approval, so long as it won't be paid for by taxes?

- A "yes" vote would allow cities to buy and sell power without voter approval, even if it means going into debt. It would also allow cities to borrow money for new electrical facilities if approved by a simple majority.

- A "no" vote would require that all debt to improve electric facilities or buy or sell power would be approved by two-thirds of the voters, as is currently the case.






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