A tax on public records? Idaho agency says yes, for now

From KUER 90.1 NPR Utah

Spurred by questions from KUER News, the Idaho State Tax Commission expects to introduce legislation next year that would prevent public agencies from collecting sales tax on documents and other records released by officials, KUER has learned.

Until a change is introduced, existing state law regarding taxes on copies of public records is open to interpretation, a Tax Commission spokeswoman wrote in an email. As of Friday, the Tax Commission website still notes that a sales tax can be charged.

“The Idaho State Tax Commission wants to thank you for bringing the issue of sales tax and public records request copies to our attention. It prompted us to evaluate the Idaho statutes,” spokeswoman Renee Eymann wrote. “The Tax Commission intends to bring legislation next year to clarify in the code that public records aren’t subject to sales tax in the interest of openness and transparency in government.”

The Idaho governor’s office must approve the proposed legislation before it goes to lawmakers. The state’s next legislative session begins in January 2019.

The Tax Commission’s aim to clarify Idaho public record law follows a request submitted earlier this year by KUER News to the Pocatello Police Department. Claire Jones, a KUER newsroom assistant working on an upcoming podcast, asked for records on calls for service in the southern Idaho city.

Pocatello police applied redactions to records that tallied more than 200 pages, charging $145.80 for the time spent to complete the effort and copying costs. Idaho and other state and federal laws allow government agencies to assess fees to process and reproduce public records. In an unusual twist, the Pocatello department also charged a 6 percent sales tax of $8.75 on top of the cost to reproduce the records.

“I’ve never heard of that. That sounds extremely odd” to assess a tax on copies of public records, said Adam Marshall, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for journalists. “The fact that no one in state government can point to a statute where it gives an agency the authority to charge a sales tax speaks volumes about this issue.”

Pocatello City Attorney Jared Johnson acknowledged that the interpretation of the law can vary. Pocatello has chosen to charge a sales tax on copies of public records, he said.

“It’s not clear in the code whether in fact that can’t be done,” he said.

A screen capture from the Idaho State Tax Commission website shows that state agencies may assess a sales tax on copies of public records. A Tax Commission spokeswoman said that the agency expects to introduce legislation next year to clarify state law that public records are not subject to sales tax. CREDIT KUER NEWS

The state Attorney General’s Office, in contrast, does not collect sales tax on reproduced public records, spokesman Scott Graf said.

How much money Pocatello or other Idaho agencies may have collected from the practice is unknown. It is also unclear how often officials in the state charge a sales tax when releasing public records. The Tax Commission does not track what portion of an agency’s reported sales tax revenue comes from released copies of requested public records, Eymann, the commission’s spokeswoman, said.

“The only way to determine that would be to contact each government entity separately to see if they have the information,” she wrote in a separate email.

After reviewing the assessed fees, Pocatello police decreased the sales tax from $8.75 to 43 cents. But the amount of money isn’t the issue, said Betsy Russell, president of the Idaho Press Club and a veteran journalist.

“The point is to preserve citizen access to government records, not to soak people for extra money,” she said. “It’s just wrong.”

From KUER 90.1 NPR Utah

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