By Zach Hagadone
Sandpoint Reader: What is the top challenge you see the state facing in the coming year? How might you face that challenge?
Gary Suppiger: We are enduring the worst pandemic in over 100 years. Recovery and restoring the health of the residents of Idaho both physically and economically will continue to be a challenge. Our state has now been under restrictions for two months. To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, most Idahoans have been staying at home. Non-essential business, schools, churches and government offices have been closed. The infection curve in Idaho is now flattening and Gov. Little is implementing a four-step plan to get Idahoans out of their houses and into workplaces, social gatherings and places of worship. Implementing this plan without a second wave of infections and restoring our state’s economic health will require continued sacrifices and great patience on behalf of all Idahoans.
SR: With the coronavirus pandemic affecting both municipal and state budgets adversely, do you foresee any crucial programs and/or agencies suffering? What ideas might you have to help fund those areas of the budget that might go by the wayside because of cuts?
GS: Every public dollar not spent ripples through the economy and causes more hardship. State sales tax and income tax receipts have already been affected by the coronavirus epidemic. Gov. Little used his emergency powers and announced a 1% hold back of state funds to all state agencies and programs for the 2019-2020 fiscal year and additional 5% hold back during the 2020-2021 fiscal year starting July 1, 2020. Idaho has a balanced budget and has always managed its fiscal affairs very conservatively. Agencies and departments within the state, as well as the state itself, maintain reserve accounts with balances for emergencies such as this. This conservative fiscal management served us well during the recession of 2008-2010 and will serve us again in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. State departments will tighten their belts, postpone some projects, limit hiring, dip into their reserve accounts and survive the coronavirus pandemic.
SR: Gov. Brad Little has taken heat from some Idahoans that believe his stay-at-home order was “unconstitutional.” Do you agree with Gov. Little’s decision? If not, how might you, as a legislator, have handled that differently?
GS: I also feel the pain and frustration of Idaho’s stay-at-home restrictions. Businesses are closed and many Idahoans are not working. Finding the funds to pay rent, buy groceries, pay utility bills and make payments is very difficult. Coronavirus is still a dangerous pandemic. Over 80,000 Americans have died. There remains no prevention and no cure. …
Gov. Little has the authority under his emergency powers to order restrictions to protect the safety and security of Idahoans. … A single carrier with no symptoms can directly and indirectly infect hundreds of people. We must continue to be vigilant. We are in the midst of the fight.
Gov. Little has used sound medical science and good judgement to manage the state during the pandemic. Our curve in Idaho is now flattening and the governor is beginning to relax the restrictions.
I support the governor’s four-step plan to protect Idahoans and reopen Idaho’s economy. We are now in Step 1. On May 16 we will go to Step 2, where shops, restaurants and bars can begin to reopen .
SR: The Idaho House and Senate battled during the 2020 session over the issue of how to institute property tax relief for Idahoans — especially in fast-growing counties. What would you, as someone on the “front lines” of the issue as a state lawmaker, like to see put in place? What policies need to change and why? How would you balance property tax relief with the need for growth to pay for growth?
GS: Property taxes are the primary source of revenue to support local government, including cities and counties, and should not be threatened or interrupted by the Legislature.
Local property taxes are a poor way to support public education. Prior to 2006, the public schools were almost entirely funded by the state with an equitable formula. Then-Gov. Risch convinced the Legislature to revise the formula, promising that a 1% increase in the sales tax would keep up with the costs of the growing enrollments in Idaho schools.
His economists were wrong. Sales tax receipts were down significantly during the recession of 2008-2010 and have never kept up with the cost of education. With state support eroding and to make up for budget shortfalls, school districts were forced to turn to the only tool they had: local property tax levies. These levies have been increasing in frequency and size ever since.
In 2006, one-fourth of the state’s districts used “supplemental levies” to support a very small portion of their budgets. Now, over three-fourths of the state’s districts use property tax levies to provide up to 40% or more of their budgets.
Local levies are inherently inequitable because every district is different. They have different assessed valuations of private properties, different enrollments and different levels of support for levies. Some districts can raise $10,000 or more per student while other districts cannot get any property tax support from their patrons.
Every student in Idaho deserves an adequate and equitable education. The system we have now is far from equitable. Fortunate districts can afford to spend three times as much per student as unfortunate districts.
The only fair solution is to eliminate the local property tax burden for education and restore the funding formula we had before 2006, when the state provided adequate and equitable resources to support the education of every child in the state.
SR: In what order of importance — and why — would you rank your top three budget priorities for the state of Idaho?
GS: Health and Welfare — We must continue to fund the coronavirus response and make sure Idaho’s families are safe, secure, and healthy; Emergency Services — Police, fire and emergency medical must have the resources to respond to emergencies and keep us safe; Education — Invest in our public school system to provide the best education possible for Idaho’s most important resource: our children. … Idaho must invest in an adequate and equitable public school system to provide the tools every child needs to succeed.
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