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Otter took Idaho tax chairman's breath away

Dan Popkey
January 10, 2013
Idaho Statesman

The governor's endorsement of local option taxation was a well-kept secret.

The Legislature's new gatekeeper on taxes says he had no warning when Gov. Butch Otter proposed authorizing the taxes in his State of the State speech Monday afternoon.

"There was kind of a big pause when the governor mentioned that in his talk," said House Revenue & Taxation Committee Chairman Gary Collins, R-Nampa. "At least my breath - my breathing - changed a little bit. That was a big surprise to me. I think it was to a lot of different people. I guess that will just be part of the conversation."

I spoke with Collins on Wednesday morning, shortly before his vastly reconfigured committee began its first full business meeting with a review of rules proposed by the Tax Commission. The committee held an organization session Tuesday. Revenue-raising measures must start in House Rev & Tax, which has traditionally been more conservative than its Senate counterpart, the Local Government & Taxation Committee.

Collins said his position on local option hasn't changed since 2008, when he supported a House-passed constitutional amendment to allow voters to approve local taxes, but only with a two-thirds supermajority. The Senate rejected that proposal, in part because local governments opposed the change as too restrictive.

Collins said he agrees with Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, one of just seven holdovers on the 16-member committee. Moyle says the two-thirds vote and constitutional status are necessary to protect taxpayers. "That's what he's expressed to me, and I haven't changed my mind either," Collins said.

Otter said he doesn't require those two hurdles as part of his plan to help offset the $141 million cost to local governments of repealing the personal property tax on business equipment. But he conceded the Legislature might be unwilling to enact local taxes without such restrictions.

Otter's office has yet to supply Collins with a draft bill or any details. In a news conference Monday, Otter steadfastly refused to specify whether he was talking about sales taxes or income taxes or other levies. He simply said the matter should be left to local officials and voters.

"I really haven't seen any (draft bills) or anything," Collins said.

That raises questions about how serious Otter is about local option.

Governors often guard the punchlines in advance of their biggest speech of the year. But it would have been wise for Otter to share the notion with the new chairman of the first committee to vet his plans.

The local option may be a trial balloon that quickly bursts. If that's the case, Otter would have been better off to have a staffer or some sympathetic lawmaker leak the idea.

Collins said he plans to move ahead soon with hearings on repeal of the personal property tax. "I'm sure we'll have something going on here within the next 10 days or two weeks," Collins said. "It's something that we've got to get printed and get out there so we can get serious."

Moyle, who has long gotten most of what he wants in the committee, said he doesn't have a clear read on how the philosophical complexion of the new committee might influence Otter's proposals.

"I don't think any of them know," Moyle said. "It's a learning curve for these new guys."

Moyle said some newbies have expressed surprise that local option is typically a sales tax, saying, "What's that? Sales tax? People don't like sales tax."

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

Originally posted at

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