Local lawmakers took a break from the bustle of Boise this weekend to visit with constituents in town halls across District 26.
Rep. Muffy Davis, D-Ketchum, Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, and Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, traveled across Blaine, Gooding and Lincoln Counties on Friday and Saturday to share mid-session updates and answer questions from voters. A town hall in Camas County is scheduled for Feb. 21.
Conversations in Ketchum and Gooding revolved mostly around education, while town hall attendees in Shoshone were interested in tax bills and transportation infrastructure. Despite that, the discussions at four town halls—in blue Blaine County and redder Lincoln and Gooding—all came back to one central concern: how to fund state-mandated services at the local level while keeping rising property taxes from skyrocketing.
At a recent meeting of the Idaho Association of Counties, Stennett said, county commissioners of all political stripes expressed frustration at the state for handing down certain requirements to counties without sufficient funding.
“They were hoppin’ mad and I’m glad to see it, because finally we’ve got to rise up and say this is not working,” Stennett said at the Ketchum event. “It’s got to reach a boiling point before anybody’s going to pay attention to it.”
Statewide, the lawmakers told town hall goers across the district, Idaho’s economy is the healthiest it has been in a decade, with the state’s rainy-day fund capped. Despite this, Stennett said, Gov. Brad Little is, “budgeting like we’re in the middle of a recession.”
In Ketchum, where education dominated the discussion, Ketchum and Boise resident Jerry Flandero said he was fed up with school districts running supplemental levies to make up for deficiencies in state funding. Ninety-two of Idaho’s 115 school districts collected a levy in 2019.
“Why do we not fundamentally put everything on the back burner until we properly fund education in the state?” Flandero said. “I’m about ready to lead a rebellion against the next supplemental levy and convince people not to sign one, because they should be working against the Legislature and saying no supplemental levies.”
Meanwhile, the legislators said, already-strapped counties are struggling to pay for public defense, jails, and infrastructure—while state officials “believe counties are spending too much and living high on the hog,” as Davis put it in Shoshone. The governor also proposed in his most recent budget that counties cover $8.5 million of the state’s $41 million share to fund Medicaid expansion, a proposal that Davis and Toone have said they oppose.
State Republican leadership has named property tax relief as a priority this year, and a number of bills, including a bill proposing a one-year statewide property tax freeze, have been introduced this session. A committee hearing for that bill, House Bill 409, began Tuesday, Feb. 11, and will continue Wednesday, Feb. 12.
The Blaine County Commission is opposed to the property tax freeze bill, which would limit the services the county could afford, Chairman Jacob Greenberg said at the Hailey event.
Two other potential funding sources for local governments also came up at the town hall meetings: out-of-state sales tax and local-option taxes.
The Legislature voted in 2018 to collect Idaho sales tax from certain out-of-state retailers who make online sales to Idaho buyers. That money now goes into a dedicated tax relief fund.
“It was a good idea to collect sales tax on our internet sales,” Toone said in Hailey, but she and Stennett said they would like to see some of that money go to cities and counties rather than be set aside for tax relief only.
The question of whether to let Idaho cities and counties vote to implement a local-option tax—a special sales tax that goes toward a specific project—has been a subject of debate in the Legislature for years. Under current law, only resort cities with fewer than 10,000 people, such as Ketchum, are allowed to introduce such a tax.
Lincoln County, where shopping options are limited, “wouldn’t benefit at all” from a local option tax, Commissioner Roy Hubert told the legislators in Shoshone. There has also been some talk of expanding the radius for local-option taxes to involve smaller communities outside of larger shopping hubs like Twin Falls, Davis said.
In Ketchum—one of Idaho’s most liberal cities—the conversation took on a more partisan tone than at other town halls. One attendee, Ketchum resident Gary Hoffman, suggested that Democrats target “vulnerable” Republican seats in other districts.
“This is all just theoretical phooey because we can’t do anything without people in seats,” Hoffman said.
“This is a red, rural state,” Davis countered. “We’re different here [in Blaine County]. This is a different place than even our south counties we talk to. This is a different town hall.”
The partisan difference between the District 26 representatives and the more conservative makeup of other counties in the district came up at the Shoshone town hall as well, when one attendee thanked the legislators for coming to speak.
“I know you guys are a different letter than most people in your outlying district, but you guys always listen to what we have to say,” Dietrich resident Valerie Varadi told the lawmakers. “And that’s nice to see, especially when our nation is so divided right now.”
Working for all constituents, regardless of party, is “really how you affect change,” Stennett said in Ketchum.
“Regardless of party, we need to make your life thrive,” Stennett said. “How do we do that? That’s the message we put out and that’s why we consistently do well in our district, even though it’s stacked in numbers against us.”