Meridian residents just got a glimpse into some ideas being floated early in this year’s Idaho legislative session that could affect their lives and pocketbooks.
The District 21 Republicans hosted a town hall at Meridian City Hall for the district’s legislators, who spoke about possible bills and their priorities for the session.
The town hall on Friday was a chance for the dozens of attendees to ask questions of Sen. Treg Bernt, Rep. James Petzke and Rep. Jeff Ehlers, all freshman legislators from Meridian. Their District 21 includes a portion of Meridian bordered by West Ustick Road on the north, East Victory Road on the south, North McDermott Road on the west and North Eagle Road on the east.
The most frequently asked questions were about school vouchers and education savings accounts, which would direct public school funds to families wanting to send their students to private schools. Other hot topics were property tax reform and abortion exceptions.
1. Mixed opinions on private-school subsidies
School choice is expected to be discussed in the Legislature again this session. School choice describes a national movement seeking to direct public funds to private education, often in the form of so-called voucher or education savings accounts. A bill to create a grant program for private education expenses passed the House last session but not the Senate.
The Idaho Statesman previously reported that the Senate Education Committee this year is made up of legislators who advocated for school choice. Bernt, Meridian’s newest state senator, said education was one of his top priorities during his campaign.
Bernt and Ehlers are both open to the idea of school choice.
“I want to look at outcomes,” Ehlers said. “What is giving us the best outcomes for educating our children?”
Petzke, who sits on the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee, which is made up of legislators from both chambers who set state agency budgets each year, said he is “not a huge fan of giving money to private institutions, particularly tax dollars.”
“The frameworks that I’ve seen all involve some kind of dramatic expansion of government,” said Petzke. “There’s 19,000 students that go to private schools (in Idaho), multiply that times $1,000, it’s a couple $100 million dollars of tax increases that the state’s going to have to do to then fund private education.”
2. Education savings accounts
Bernt is not on the Senate Education Committee, but said he supports school choice policies, such as education savings accounts. He said he likes that education savings accounts can be used for expenses other than private school tuition, like books and after school tutoring.
The House Bill last session would have codified this. Bernt said he prefers the openness of education savings accounts to other school choice mechanisms.
Ehlers said he would be interested in learning more about education savings accounts and other “creative ways” to bolster education in Idaho.
Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, has publicized a bill that would created education savings accounts for Idahoans with children in grades K-12. The bill has not yet been scheduled for a hearing in the House or Senate.
3. Bernt backs abortion exemptions
Earlier this month, Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, proposed legislation that would have repealed two of three legal defenses for Idaho’s criminal abortion law. The law provides abortion providers legal defenses when they perform an abortion that resulted from rape or incest or endangered the life of the mother.
Herndon’s proposal would have removed the rape and incest defenses. The Senate State Affairs Committee rejected the proposal, the Statesman reported. Bernt was among senators who voted no.
A town hall attendee asked Bernt why he opposed the proposal.
“I have two daughters, and I can’t imagine one of them getting raped by a relative, and being impregnated and having to carry that baby full term, knowing that there’s a decent chance that that baby might not even be healthy,” Bernt said. “The trauma that my daughter would go through, it’s just something that I cannot support.”
Bernt said he opposes abortion but believes lawmakers “have to be reasonable.”
“I believe that taking away those two exemptions from that bill is just an unreasonable asked of the women in the state of Idaho,” he said.
4. School funding to lower property taxes
Property tax reform was among the top two priorities for each legislator, but they said they couldn’t say this early in the session exactly what property tax reform bills ultimately will be up for debate.
Petzke said the legislature could find a way other than bonds, to fund school facilities. The West Ada School District, which includes District 21, repeatedly turns to voters to pass bond issues as new housing goes up and student enrollment grows.
“If you look at our property tax bills, the main reason why they’re so high is because we pay for these bonds for school buildings,” he said. “If we can find some other way to fund to fund those school buildings or to pay off those bonds— that’s by far the best way, in my opinion, to get property tax relief immediately and effectively, and simultaneously help out with school things.”
Ehlers, who sits on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, said the committee is working through the bill drafts that address property tax reform. He suggested that some of the money allocated to education during last summer’s special session could be used for school districts to pay down their bonds and supplemental and plant-facility levies so school property taxes would go down.
“That’s the big idea being talked about right now,” Ehlers said.
Petzke said he has heard proposals to enable schools to charge impact fees on new houses and other new construction, as state law lets local governments do to help offset the costs of growth. But he argued that impact fees would not be enough to fund new school facilities.
Bernt said he has heard a proposal to create a pool of state money where school districts could borrow money at a lower interest rate than they can now.
“I don’t know how much traction that has,” he said.