Public records show Gov. Otter may be ready to back local option law

From the Idaho Statesman

Words removed from the State of the State suggest he might drop his demand for a constitutional amendment.

BY DAN POPKEY – dpopkey@idahostatesman.com
Edition Date: 01/27/09

A passage that Gov. Butch Otter cut from his State of the State address two weeks ago suggested that he may be more flexible about permitting voter-approved local sales taxes than he was last year.

Otter’s unspoken words may suggest a softening of his earlier “unequivocal support” for a constitutional amendment before local governments could ask voters to back sales taxes for spending on transportation and possibly other needs.

That is likely to encourage proponents of a beefed-up public transit system in the Treasure Valley. They were frustrated last year when House Republicans insisted on requiring the constitutional amendment.

Cities, counties and chambers of commerce hope Otter and the Legislature will agree to give local governments this authority by passing a law, which requires simple majority votes in the House and Senate and the governor’s signature. A constitutional amendment requires two-thirds majorities in bothhouses and approval by voters at the next general election. A law would be far easier to amend.

“I think it’s heartening,” said Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee Chairman Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. “My cities in Eastern Idaho are not interested in a constitutional amendment that ties the hands of future legislatures.”

A draft of Otter’s Jan. 12 speech had him urging lawmakers to agree to allow local-option taxes – without mentioning a constitutional amendment.

But on the Friday before the Monday speech he removed two paragraphs, apparently at the urging of House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, the most vocal proponent of an amendment. While the House voted for a constitutional amendment last year, it died in the Senate, which preferred the lower bar.

The purged words closed a long passage pitching Otter’s plan to raise fuel taxes and registration fees for highways. Otter provided the draft in response to a public records request from the Statesman. The omitted text:

“I also encourage you to come together in agreement that cities and counties must have the option – with the consent of voters – to provide financially for their own community infrastructure needs. If local folks in a given jurisdiction want to impose a tax on themselves, they should have that opportunity.

“We must not let our own views cloud our commitment to self-determination and enabling people to be the architects of their own destiny.”

Moyle said he asked Otter to remove talk of local-option because of ongoing negotiations. “I told him I was concerned about that being brought up,” Moyle said Monday. “I’d much rather work it out rather than fight it in the State of the State or the newspaper.”

House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said he continues to oppose local-option without a constitutional amendment. Denney said he has discussed lowering the threshold for voter approval from two-thirds to three-fifths. “As long as it comes as a constitutional amendment, the parameters are up to the committee,” he said.

Otter declined to elaborate on whether he was taking sides on the constitutional amendment. In an interview with Idaho Public Television aired four days after the speech, he said he dropped the topic because leadership told him of “tender negotiations.” Pressed on whether he would insist on a constitutional amendment or could accept a statute, he said, “I’m not going to answer that.”

The excised statements are a departure from a March 12 letter to House Revenue & Taxation Committee Chairman Dennis Lake. Otter wrote of his “unequivocal support” for an amendment as the “best, most timely and most broadly acceptable manner” to grant local tax powers. He closes with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”

Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce Chairman Mark Bowen was pleased to learn of Otter’s sentiments in the earlier draft. “We welcome the opportunity to have a broader dialogue rather than, ‘This is the price of admission.’ I’d appreciate it if everybody backed away a little.”

Moyle, however, said there’s no reason to conclude Otter has stepped back. “Big deal,” he said. “That’s neutral. You could read it either way.”

Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, cautioned against too much parsing of the omitted passage. “This may be cracking the door open, but it’s not open enough for me to see what’s inside that dark room yet,” he said.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438

From the Idaho Statesman

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