“The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing.”
— Jean-Baptiste Colbert
Collecting taxes hasn’t changed much in the more than 300 years since the French prime minister compared collecting taxes and gathering materials for a feather bed. The truth is, none of us like to pay taxes.
That’s going to hit home rather rudely here when Bannock County tax bills go out this fall. As Assessor Sheri Davies told this paper when property valuation notices were being sent this month, homeowners will be stuck with more of the tab.
In case you missed it, that’s because home values here have increased dramatically, but the worth of commercial property has stayed mostly flat. Taxes are levied based on the total assessed valuation of all taxable property in any taxing district.
With home values rising so fast, homeowners will see a tax increase this fall. Davies was honest about the other payers. Commercial property owners will see a net decrease in their tax bills relative to homeowners.
Over the past two decades, Republicans in Idaho’s Legislature have already been diligently shifting the state’s tax burden to homeowners. Previously, Idaho had maintained somewhat of a balance between sales, income and property taxes.
The sales tax was approved by Idaho voters in the mid-1960s. It was promoted mainly to provide additional money to support public schools, without putting that burden only on homeowners and other property owners.
The first Idaho sales tax was at 3 percent. Now it’s 6 percent. The amount of sales tax has grown dramatically. Our Legislature has used the revenue for a variety of purposes, not least of which has been to reward those who help them.
The increasingly conservative Idaho Legislature annually touts “tax reduction” by cutting income taxes the most for those who earn the most. In a sense, those tax cuts are being paid for with growing sales tax collections.
Meanwhile, local governments have been forced to backfill the holes left in their budgets with the only tool they have — property taxes. Homeowners and commercial property owners have been saddled with more and more and more of the state’s tax burden.
An ironic result has seen conservatives crying bitterly about students not graduating high school or going on to college. The terrible truth is Idaho’s schools are underfunded by the state. On the far end, higher ed is increasingly unaffordable even in Idaho.
What’s worse, too many of our kids are in an unfair system of education where students in the poorest, most rural districts see high teacher turnover, crowded classrooms and inadequate teaching materials.
Low teacher pay is chronic in even Idaho’s wealthiest districts. Though it has gotten somewhat better, Idaho’s constitutional requirement that the Legislature has a duty ”to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools” remains unmet.
Still, parents vote almost universally for override levies to increase taxes upon themselves to fund the schools their kids attend — 92 of Idaho’s 115 school districts were funded by such levies in 2019.
Faced with this reality, the Legislature has a delicate dance to do. It could, of course, restore taxes on high-income earners and apply the proceeds to reduce property taxes on homes.
Or it could invest the money in Idaho schools. That investment would, over time, pay off for the entire state.
In the short term, though, it’s unlikely the rich would tolerate paying more taxes. It’s not that they’re, well, entitled. It’s just that they might write their $1,000 campaign contribution checks to new candidates if such legislation were passed.
Given that reality, so far a majority of our legislators have picked the wealthy when it comes time to dance the taxation two-step. Meanwhile, homeowners are left watching from beside the dance floor. And, paying more and more and more.
Dave Finkelnburg is a longtime Idahoan, a former newspaper journalist, and is currently semi-retired from an engineering career.