Unda’ the Rotunda is a syndicated Idaho political column first published in the Boise Weekly.
BOISE – Challis Rep. Lenore Hardy Barrett heads up the House Local Government Committee. The fact that its only met six times this year could indicate that Barrett believes in leaving cities and counties alone.
When we asked Barrett how Idaho Legislators treat local government her first response was: “Why are you asking me that?”
But as chair of the — as we reminded her — local government committee, Barrett grudgingly offered her defense of local control: “The one thing I think we step a little out on are some of the mandates,” she said.
In the same week Barrett and a host of other legislators who pay frequent lip service to the role of the lowly county commissioner and city councilor, voted to bar counties from collecting personal property taxes on business equipment and to bar any locality from implementing its own gun control measures. Barrett, who was once a Challis city councilor, considers these to be “tax” issues and “uniformity” issues.
The counties and cities that are affected by these bills consider them to be meddling issues.
“Our biggest concern is making sure we don’t get rolled,” said Dan Chadwick, executive director of the Idaho Association of Counties.
Sen. Tim Corder, who sits on the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee, says the Idaho Legislature consistently sends mixed signals to local governments.
“We tell them we want them to have local control but when it comes to the really meaningful things we take it away from them,” the Mountain Home Republican said. “We offer property tax exemptions that the county has to pay for.”
The state requires counties in particular to do lots of stuff: run the courts, take care of indigents, law enforcement. But the state also controls the flow of tax money to counties to pay for all those things.
“County government is an arm of state government,” said Chadwick. “We carry out state policies at the local level yet we also become a target.”
Often citizens who are irritated with their tax bill or with their mayor’s latest bright ideas turn to their legislators for redress.
Case in point: Several constituents approached Eagle Rep. Raúl Labrador before the start of the session about his city’s plan to buy a private water company and tax certain city residents to pay for it. Labrador had never heard of a local improvement district before.
“That just peaked my interest,” he said.
Labrador and Rep. Mike Moyle, the House Majority Leader from nearby Star, introduced a bill to put local improvement districts to a supermajority vote. They gave the bill to the Association of Idaho Cities on the same day it was introduced.
“We all use the same term ‘local control’ but it means different things to different people,” Labrador said. “If you’re a conservative it seems to mean you want to be careful with making it too easy to tax.”
The cities came back to Labrador with many changes and he acknowledged his original bill to reign in the small taxing districts was too broad. He took calls from mayors and city attorneys from across the state and narrowed the bill.
“I thought it was a good working relationship,” Labrador said.
But the cities still oppose the scaled back version.
Then there are cases of state lawmakers passing the buck to the locals.
Two bills this year give city and county governments the power to regulate transitional housing for ex-felons and sex offenders – an issue that legislators running for office are loathe to take too specific a position on.
There is also a bill that allows counties to offer companies tax breaks as an incentive to draw business to their area.
This idea put Corder in what he described as a quandary: on the one hand he wanted to protect small governments from getting into bad deals with large corporations. On the other hand, he wanted locals to be able to make their own decisions, just as legislators do every day.
“I fear what can happen in the counties,” Corder said before voting to support the bill in committee. “For me it’s somewhat consistent if we want counties to have more authority and to exercise their authority.”
Then there is the question of what even constitutes a local government.
Are the two counties in the Boise Valley, by virtue of being connected geographically and by the same highway and airshed, a legitimate governing block? The Boise Valley badly wants to raise local funds to address public transportation needs, but sentiment appears split between Ada and Canyon Counties.
Republican House leaders have floated a Constitutional amendment that sets a very high bar for passing a local sales tax, primarily aimed at transit projects.
Assistant House Majority Leader Scott Bedke said that allowing a large majority of Ada County voters to determine what Canyon County voters want is an issue of taxation without representation. Hence the supermajority called for in the Constitutional amendment and the requirement that local option taxes be approved county by county.
“We’re all for self-determination,” Bedke said at a press conference after the hearing on the amendment. “The whole concept, the whole tone is ‘let the voters decide.’”
Rep. Nicole LeFavour, a Boise Democrat, said that this and other bills that crimp local decision making show how the Legislature really views local governments.
“Obviously we don’t trust them,” LeFavour said. “Obviously we feel that we know better.”
Jim Hansen, a former legislator and director of United Vision for Idaho testified that sometimes voters are asked to support a bond for a school across the city or county but that the entire area will ultimately benefit. On transit projects as well, Ada and Canyon counties are inextricably tied.
“The reality is we’re all in this together,” Hansen said. “We’re all going to benefit from this asset.”
Rep. Leon Smith, a Twin Falls attorney, voted to pass the Constitutional amendment to the House floor, but said he’s not sure how he’ll vote there.
“We want to cram a Constitutional amendment down that further restricts cities from taxing themselves… but we tell them ‘ you fix it, that’s your job,” Smith said.
In some ways legislators act toward smaller jurisdictions the way Uncle Sam treats the state.
“The hypocrisy is there’s so much ‘oh the Feds are doing these horrible things to us’ and then they turn around and do the same things to the counties,” said House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet.
Though legislators are running for office and could see some consequences from their votes on road funding, property taxes and other local issues, in the end the counties and cities bear the brunt of the criticism.
“We’ll take the heat for it,” said Chadwick. “That’s what we do. That’s our job.”
Nathaniel Hoffman is an independent journalist in Boise. He edits PaleoMedia.org.