Bond issue exposes cost guessing game

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On March 26, 2018, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter signed into law HB 626, an innocuous-looking, yawn-inducing bit of legislation that requires ballot language outlining the cost of proposed school bond issues.

Ask backers of Lakeland School District’s $70.9 million bond request what they think of HB 626 now.

Thanks to the bill, ballot language that Lakeland patrons will consider before voting on the Aug. 27 request differs dramatically from what school district officials have been telling them they’ll pay over the next 20 years if the bond is approved.

Conventional wisdom suggests that most people won’t buy something if they don’t know what it will cost. We will not go so far as to suggest that HB 626 was built with that intent, spawned in a demonic anti-education dungeon; nor would we allege that school district officials gleefully resort to telling their patrons fabulous fibs just to get more of their hard-earned tax dollars. But we will say, this is a mess.

If you live in a $300,000 home, Lakeland officials say, bond approval will mean an average property tax increase of about $82 a year over the next two decades. The ballot language, however, says that same homeowner should plan on shelling out closer to $450 a year. That there’s such a big discrepancy puts voters in a terrible place.

When you look at this from the education establishment’s viewpoint, it’s proof positive that school districts have a bull’s-eye painted on their capital requests. And considering Idaho is the only state that provides no funding for K-12 capital projects while also requiring a 66 2/3 percent supermajority to pass a local school bond issue, they may have a point.

The argument that public indebtedness for 20 years should require a high bar for passage would have more merit if the state didn’t force the property owners in school districts to lift that heavy burden all by themselves. In our view, greater balance in paying for school facilities is needed. More than most public entities, schools should enjoy the benefit of stronger investment or at least not being the object of constant skimping. Idaho’s very future depends on how safe our school children are and how conducive their environment is to learning.

With the mess, though, comes hope. Rep. Tony Wisniewski, R-Post Falls, a freshman legislator, has been working hard to ensure voters have the most accurate information possible. His explanation published Saturday in The Press is outstanding. His leadership in tackling this complicated issue is encouraging and could bode well for all concerned in the years ahead.

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