Stephen Hartgen 01

As the Bob Dylan song says, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” and the political wind in much of Idaho now is blowing hard against any additional taxes.

Of seven school bond proposals on the Aug. 27 ballot, six failed: Lakeland, Bonneville, Oneida, Filer, Kellogg and Shoshone. Only one passed, in Sugar-Salem, as did a smaller, 50 percent levy in Parma.

But otherwise, it was a wipeout. Why did voters turn down school proposals left and right? Schools are close to local people; Idahoans love their schools. They usually enjoy broad community support. So why didn’t the bonds pass?

Simple. A tax revolution is in the air across the state.

In Twin Falls, city officials say they need more time to determine if a proposed fire station bond can pass voter scrutiny. It failed on the May 2019 ballot at $36 million. Two proposed alternatives are now delayed at least until next year. Both are less expensive and phased in over time.

Yet, the real problem is lack of spending restraint by local officials, for whom every want becomes a need, which then translates into a necessity, but which rarely get the tax scrutiny needed.

At a recent legislators’ forum in Meridian, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle explained that during the recession a few years ago, the state cut almost 30% of its spending. “At the same time that happened, though, the local government budgets were growing at almost 30%,” he said in an Idaho Statesman account of the Aug. 20 forum.

“Moyle explained that this happened because when setting annual budgets, the state first projects tax revenues and then builds a budget based on what it expects to receive. Counties, cities and other local taxing districts do the opposite. They build their budgets first and then decide how much to levy in property taxes to collect the revenue they need. So the state has to constantly monitor monthly tax receipts and adjust accordingly, but local governments don’t have to do this because they already have billed taxpayers for the money they need to meet the budget.”

Read that paragraph again. Kicking the cost off into the future won’t matter unless local officials sharply reduce the proposed amounts. The lower the better. Don’t ask for anything extra. Get the costs to a minimum. Get question and answers solid. Ignore rubber-stamp, “we-gotta-have-it” advisory committees. Don’t just listen to advocates, who always want to build something with other people’s money. In short, listen to those who will have to pay.

There’s considerable skepticism of any bond proposal, particularly ones which are “nice to have” but not essential. At a Twin Falls “state of the city” forum this summer, city officials gamely tried to pitch the “need” for an expensive new, taxpayer-funded recreation center at perhaps $40 million.

There was a lot of silence as business leaders mentally processed the proposed new tax they’d have to pay. Good luck with getting that passed in this tax climate.

In the Aug 27 bond vote, Filer school taxpayers buried a proposed multi-million dollar construction plan; it didn’t even get 50 percent of the vote, much less the two-thirds needed for passage and it probably is the worst defeat ever for the district. In Shoshone, it was the same story; a multi-million dollar school building plan was deep-sixed, for the fourth time.

It’s as if some local public officials are tone-deaf to voter tax concerns. In Filer, for example, the proposal was for $8.55 million, at an estimated cost of $3.97 per /$1,000 of valuation. Thus, a farm valued at $250,000 (minus the homestead exemption of $100,000) would see a tax jump of almost $600 annually, or almost $12,000 over the life of a 20-year-bond. That ain’t small potatoes.

In the Shoshone school district, the proposal was for $6.83 million, which would have added $156.36 in new taxes annually for every $100,000 in valuation. A property valued at $300,000, minus the homeowner’s exemption, would see an annual tax increase of $312, or over $6,000 in new taxes over a 20-year bond.

Meanwhile, Twin Falls County officials are pushing ahead to put a $25 million jail bond on the November ballot; it’s less than the $60-$80 million proposal first floated, but may still be too much.

Facebook comments are mixed, but there are plenty of folks out there who aren’t going to vote to raise their taxes for a new jail for felons. “Don’t give ‘em anything” seems a common sentiment.

The Twin Falls County jail proposal is estimated to cost about $25-$28/year on every $100,000 in assessed value. That may not seem like much, but if you have a property valued at $300,000, minus the homeowner’s exemption of $100,000, that’s an additional $1,150 in new taxes over the 20-year debt.

The county’s property valuations, by the way, have nearly doubled in recent years, from $3.17 billion in 2007 to $6.15 billion in 2019, an increase of almost $3 billion or close to 100 percent in barely more than a decade. Similar valuation jumps can be seen in many other communities.

It’s a fair question: if local growth is so robust, why can’t local officials live within their means and the money coming in from increased valuations? If assessed valuations have almost doubled in 12 years, why do we need higher tax rates on top of that? 

Yet now, local entities want to raise people’s taxes even more with a steady stream of proposed new public buildings and renovations. That’s why people are saying “no” at the voting booth. 

The tea-leaves lesson of these turn-downs ought to be easy to read. If folks won’t support their own local school proposals, the overall tax load is the likely cause. People are simply saying “enough!”

Rep. Moyle is right. It’s time to rein in local spending. That’s what people are saying with their “no” votes. They’re voting their wallets, what they think they can afford, not what officials say is a “need.”

Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee and on the Revenue & Taxation Committee. Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He is the author of the new book “Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990.”  He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.