Like a clock, regular as daily sunshine, some Idaho public officials muse about reducing the two-thirds supermajority requirement for bond levies as too high a standard to meet. They propose dropping the requirement to something less, such as a bare majority, to make passage easier for school construction and other bonded levy projects.
That would not be a good idea and, thankfully, it isn’t likely to come about, as the proposal would mean changing Idaho’s Constitution, no small feat.
The two-thirds supermajority provision dates from Idaho’s original constitutional provisions, where the state’s Founding Fathers (they were all men) included language to make sure any public debt had broad public support from two-thirds of the voters for any proposal (Article VIII, Section 3).
They weren’t being necessarily stingy at the time in the 1890s, but they were wisely leery of unsustainable public debt. As a new state, they were at the front edge of the Progressive Era and had seen the overreach elsewhere and what indebtedness could mean.
A two-thirds requirement, it was felt, would allow for passage of some proposals, but would act as a prudent hurdle to less affordable spending. There wasn’t a lot of spending cash in Idaho at the time and avoiding debt and taxes was a mantra back then.
Fast forward to today and how the world has changed. Idaho is a much larger state in population. Today, you can’t hold a school bond proposal without the two-thirds provision being held up as too restrictive, outdated, archaic and even mean-spirited and cruel.
Who, proponents ask, would want to deny our kids and teachers a new playground, track, basketball gym, bleachers, classroom space, faculty space, teachers’ lounge, new parking lot, field lighting, nicer lunchroom, on and on?
How can we keep up with the district next door? Can’t let our kids play on an old, creaky-floor gym. Thus, bond proposals resemble Christmas trees, decorated with numerous glittering items, so as to entice wide approval from voters.
The history of how the two-thirds provision works in recent Idaho practice is mixed. Some projects, those seeking lower amounts, can be approved with 50 or 55 percent rather than 66 2/3.
Yet, even with the two-thirds provision in place, Idaho’s history is that many are routinely approved. One study from Idaho Business Review from 2011 to 2017 showed about half the state’s proposed school bond levies needing a supermajority were approved (25 of 53), and the result would have been higher if second and third attempts were included.
Bond levy failures are sometimes blamed on the two-thirds provision but the underlying cause may simply be that the proposals sometimes are just too much in tax increases for many people to handle in family budgets.
Proponents know how to write up literature in which it is stated that “only a little” amounts per month are needed. There is surely a short-course somewhere on how to “pitch” a project showing the lowest cost numbers. These fliers usually don’t show the real accumulated cost to property owners over time, which can run to hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year on homes, farmland and commercial properties.
The “it’s-too-much” thinking probably came into play in several defeated proposals this spring. Levies failed in Cassia County, Bear Lake County, Payette, Salmon, Minidoka County, Oneida and Filer. Supplemental levies, needing only 50 percent, also failed in St. Maries, W. Bonner County, Aberdeen and Kamiah, according to IdahoEdNews.org.
Could it be that voters there thought they were “maxed out” on taxes? We sometimes hear the argument that a proposal is the first “new” bond levy in many years, but many folks won’t be swayed by that. No bond levy since way back when? Yep, good thing too.
Two recent changes in state law, one in 2018 and one in 2019, require that ballot information for bonds and other levies clearly state the anticipated tax impacts of specific proposals. These transparency measures will surely help taxpayers decide whether to support or reject specific proposals. (HB 626, 2018 Session, IC 34-439 and HB 103, 2019 Session, IC 34-439A.)
Hopefully, the new laws will encourage levy proponents to “put a sharper pencil” to proposed projects, to make sure the numbers are right and that there’s no fluff or extra “doo-dads” in the plans.
Taxpayers intuitively know when they need more information. It’s their taxes which are proposed to be increased, after all, and prudence dictates conservative proposals, even in these seemingly flush times.
That’s what Idaho’s Founding Fathers wanted in the supermajority provision of the Idaho Constitution. They’d be proud indeed to see us honoring it as we do.