Residents of Idaho’s Treasure Valley view life there very favorably, with factors such as the regional economy and neighborhood safety faring quite well in a survey recently conducted by the School of Public Service at Boise State University.

Even typically less popular things, such as government services, quality of pay, and employment availability were viewed favorably by clear majorities.

Not everything came up roses, of course. Along with an increase in the number of people who think the Treasure Valley is growing too fast, there was also a 7% increase in the percentage of people who think the Treasure Valley needs more mass transportation options. Nearly three-fourths of respondents now agree with that statement, with the growing consensus spanning the valley and highest in Ada and Canyon counties.

When it comes to how local governments spend tax dollars, public transportation is the Treasure Valley’s top priority, followed by preserving open spaces. And when it comes to transportation priorities specifically, over half of the respondents selected public transit options: commuter rail between the City of Boise and Canyon County (29.9%) and more and more frequent bus routes (23%).

All this to say, there is considerable appetite for new and expanded public transportation options in the Treasure Valley. However, as officials across the region can attest, these popular items come with an often hefty price tag. And to pay for them, local governments often need additional revenue, something that current state law often makes prohibitively difficult to raise. Conversation and debate surrounding leading reform proposals related to increasing local government access to revenue has not been lacking, but often what has been missing is clear and reliable insight into related public preferences.

The 2017 Treasure Valley survey included multiple questions designed to capture not only how area residents feel about reform proposals related to local option taxation and reducing the super-majority required by the Idaho Constitution in order to pass bond measures. The results are illuminating.

Ray Stark, Senior Vice President at the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, provides valuable insight about how local option taxation has been and can be used in Idaho. According to Stark, “The Idaho Legislature currently allows several different forms of voter approved taxes to serve the differing needs of local governments.  Qualified ‘resort cities’ can have a sales tax to mitigate the costs that many visitors may have on a smaller city. County-wide, voter approval by simple majority for an increase in vehicle registration fees pays for important transportation projects.  A two-year property tax levy can be approved by a simple majority for a one-time community project. A voter approved sales tax with a sunset clause is allowed to pay for new jail facilities and property tax relief.  If the Idaho Legislature would allow local option sales tax, some communities would seek voter approval for specific, high priority projects as determined by the citizens.”

Treasure Valley residents support at a nearly 2:1 rate extending to all Idaho communities the power to seek public approval for local sales tax increases, with 61.9% in favor and 33% opposed. The situation changes somewhat, however, when it comes to whether an individual would support a local option tax if their town or city were to propose one. 45.6% of respondents say they would do so, which although less than half of the sample also represents a 4% increase since 2016. Moreover, when the question includes information that a local option tax could be used to “build a library, sports stadium, or support the local transportation system,” the percentage who say they would strongly or somewhat favor such a proposed tax in their community increases by another 10%. When local sales tax increases are framed not just as new taxes but as fiscal tools useful for bringing desirable projects to one’s town or city, a noteworthy number of people respond positively. 

A similar effect occurs when it comes to proposals related to reducing the current super-majority requirement imposed on local governments seeking to pass general obligation bond measures. Currently, the Idaho Constitution requires that over two-thirds or 67% of voters must support such measures. Numerous efforts to reduce this requirement have fallen short over the past few decades. Efforts to elevate the issue by allowing voters to change the requirement at the ballot box have most recently been led by House of Representatives Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, who introduced a resolution in the most recent legislative session.

According to Cameron Arial, founder of Clearwater Financial and a municipal advisor to many governments across Idaho, “Just two states share the 67% threshold, Idaho and Kentucky. Most require a 50% simple majority to approve general obligation bond measures. It is difficult to see essential projects voted down that 60% or more of citizens supported. It follows that when citizens understand that they are possibly losing out on necessary amenities and economic growth, support increases.”

When Treasure Valley residents were asked about reducing the 67% requirement down to 60%, only about one-third supported such a change. However, when informed only that an additional $60 million dollars would have been made available to local communities over the past 15 years if the requirement had been at the 60% threshold, support for the proposed reduction increased by about 8%. As was the case with attitudes about local option taxation, when respondents learned about the potential positive effects of changing policy related to raising revenue, a significant number became more supportive.

Of course, expanding local option taxation power and reducing the current super-majority bond measure requirement are only two potential paths toward enabling local communities to fund the kinds of projects their citizens support. Other options exist, and may potentially be preferable. Regardless, demand for public transportation options in the Treasure Valley is high and growing. What remains to be seen is whether and how local leaders will be able to follow through.

Note: The 2017 Treasure Valley Survey was conducted September 5-8, 2017. 1000 residents of Ada, Boise, Canyon, Gem, and Owyhee were surveyed, with responses proportionate to county population. The survey has a margin of error of 3.1%. More information about this survey can be found online at: sps.boisestate.edu/treasure-valley-survey. The author of this article directed the survey on behalf of Boise State University’s School of Public Service.