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House panel OKs break for religious education donations

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Posted: Saturday, March 16, 2013 12:50 am

    BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A House committee on Friday backed giving tax credits to those who donate to private and religious school scholarships, saying it will promote school choice for people who don’t think the traditional public classroom is right for their kids.

    The House Revenue and Taxation Committee voted 12-4 to offer tax credits — a sum deducted from the total a taxpayer owes the state — on money people and companies direct to scholarship funds that are meant to benefit students attending private schools.

    The House will now debate the measure.

    The bill would provide tax credits worth up to $10 million each year, enough for scholarships for about 3,000 students annually. Coeur d’Alene Republican Sen. Bob Nonini, the measure’s sponsor, said this could actually save Idaho money in the long run, because reducing public school enrollment would also cut Idaho’s per-student funding obligation.

    Among those who testified at the meeting for the measure was Shelly Matthews, founder of LAM Christian Academy in Coeur d’Alene.

    The 13-year-old Lutheran-affiliated, K-through-5th grade school is at the mercy of the economy, she said. When it’s in the doldrums, some parents don’t have the resources to pay the $4,500 tuition and are forced to look elsewhere.

    “When the numbers go down, when the economy is difficult, our numbers go down, and we have to adjust our budget,” Matthews said. “This is a kind of bill that could help those parents.”

    Foes included the Idaho Education Association, which argued that the tax credits would just funnel tax dollars to religious schools.

    Schools that lose students to private or religious-based competitors might no longer bear the financial burden of educating them, but they continue to face unyielding fixed costs such as buses, maintenance and repairs, said Paul Stark, the teachers union’s top lawyer in Idaho.

    “The net effect is, the funds of the state are reduced, and the funds of the private schools are increased,” he said. “For a public school, there’s no savings whatsoever.”

    Just one Republican, Rep. Neil Anderson of Blackfoot, opposed the measure.

    A rancher, he compared the potential shift in funding to the everyday reality he experiences on his spread in southeastern Idaho: If he has 98 cows, instead of 100, he still faces roughly the same costs. Hay costs run about the same for the slightly smaller herd, and the tractor still needs gas.

    “The more we take money from them, the more they come to resemble a ghost town,” Anderson said, of public schools. “We ought to work on sustaining our communities. Let’s take care of our town — not abandon it in favor of the one over the ridge.”

    This proposal is similar to one Nonini introduced in the waning days of the 2012 Legislature and is being promoted by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, as well as a separate private foundation linked to the late Milton Friedman and the conservative-leaning American Legislative Exchange Council.

    Nonini, an insurance agent, said it’s been crafted carefully to avoid Idaho’s strict constitutional prohibitions against using public funding to support religious institutions. He has an opinion from the Idaho attorney general that concludes the proposal may avoid those pitfalls, though the top state lawyer’s office concedes it still could be subject to significant litigation.

    “I can’t do anything about controlling lawsuits, if somebody doesn’t like Idaho law,” he said, on why such threats should be no impediment to the state passing his bill.

    Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, a lawyer and an opponent of the bill, said that while using the mechanism of a tax credit may not be unconstitutional on the face of it, a judge could still conclude its effect is to shift public money to religious institutions.

    Beyond the courts, however, Burgoyne said it was wrongheaded to direct tax policy to benefit religious institutions, at the expense of Idaho’s traditional education system.

    “Our destiny is with our public schools,” he said.

© 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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