Saturday, April 13, 2024

OPINION: Laying a foundation for the future

by JACK T. RIGGS/Guest Opinion
| February 23, 2024 1:00 AM

North of Kootenai County, in the very top of the panhandle, Valley View Elementary School in Bonners Ferry stands as a witness to the passage of time, its foundation laid just after World War II. 

Today, this institution reveals the toll of decades. The walls are laced with cracks that map the building's long history. Inside, the outdated heating system results in a stubborn winter chill. 

Classrooms now bear the burden of neglect, marked by water stains and lights that flicker, hinting at an electrical system teetering on the brink. Kindergarteners cross traffic multiple times a day to get to and from their building on the piecemealed campus. That’s just part of the story of school buildings all across Idaho that are literally crumbling.

In the 2020-2021 school year, Idaho was ranked last in per-pupil spending. Our children, grandchildren, and future generations, and educators deserve better, and House Bill 521 (H521) can help. And on top of that, this is an income tax reduction and property tax relief proposal. 

The bill has advanced to the House floor after passing the House Revenue and Taxation Committee. This proposal would make $2 billion available to improve school facilities over a duration of 10 years, while simultaneously REDUCING the state’s flat income tax rate from 5.80% to 5.695%. 

Since its introduction several weeks ago, H521 has garnered widespread, bipartisan support, with a co-sponsor list that includes nearly half of the Legislature. We say thank you to three of our 15 North Idaho legislators, Sen. Okuniewicz, Rep. Redman and Rep. Sauter, who are co-sponsors.

Gov. Brad Little made his thoughts clear on the value of this proposal, saying in a recent press release that "[t]his top priority bill proposes the largest investment ever in school facilities and lowers income taxes even further. It also has the added benefit of long term property tax relief because the state is footing the bill for many improvements local property owners would otherwise cover. Thank you, legislators, for putting kids and families first!” 

H521 would direct $125 million in ongoing funds to the new School Modernization Facilities Fund from sales tax revenues to enable annual payment service on bonds. With an established 10-year duration, the Fund should allow ample opportunity for districts to catch up on deferred maintenance. 

Since many school districts have difficulty passing bonds and levies, this could be a great solution to help return dilapidated school facilities to working order so our students can learn in safe, healthy environments. 

With the addition of the income tax reduction provision, it is the hope of the bill sponsors that, if Idahoans had some extra disposable income, they would be more likely to vote in favor of future bonds and levies to prevent future school facility maintenance issues.

Our area legislators have power in their votes. But, over and over again, current North Idaho legislators have more often than not turned their backs on our children and education. Last legislative session, most voted AGAINST:

• Training for school board members (H268)

• Idaho Launch Program (H24)

• Funding for Career Technical Education (H267, H363, H364)

• Insurance for educators (H203)

• Funding for community colleges (S1176)

Please ask your elected officials to support the issues that matter most to our communities, not out-of-state special interest groups or the Freedom Foundation, and vote in favor of H521 on the House floor, and then later in the Senate. This is an uncommon trifecta for Idaho families — income tax reduction, property tax relief and sorely needed school facilities repairs.

• • •

Jack T. Riggs, MD, is former Lt. Governor of Idaho and a founding member of the North Idaho Republicans.