Two weeks ago, I had the honor of volunteering at the Urban Land Institute’s conference on infrastructure development and financing. I had arrived early with two other Boise State students from the Department of Community and Regional Planning, and we helped set up tables and get conference attendees registered.
Based off the broad spectrum of conference attendees, which included: planning directors, City Council members, Chamber of Commerce members, local developers, university professors, bankers and many others, it is easy to see what is unique about Boise’s local planning culture… we are a small tight knit group of individuals who care about what is going on in the community.
The Conference was well executed. Keynote speaker Ed McMahon, chair of Sustainable Development and Environmental Policy for the Urban Land Institute (ULI), delivered an excellent speech dealing with innovations in infrastructural development nationwide. (For a more in depth look at Ed and the Urban Land Institute check out Tod Morris’s great coverage which can be found here.
Throughout the conference it became apparent to me that two things were on the attendee’s minds:
Transportation and the possibility of a local option sales tax.
After Ed’s McMahons keynote speech there was a panel discussion featuring Merdian’s Mayor Tammy De Weerd, Idaho House Representative Mike Moyle, Director of the Idaho State Department of Commerce Jeff Sayer, Director of COMPASS Matt Stoll, and Idaho State Senator Chuck Winder. One of the questions that was posed to the panel was “How would you rate the state of Idaho’s transportation infrastructure on a scale of one to five?” All of the panelists indicated that currently transportation infrastructure was between a two and three point five, noting that certain areas of Idaho were doing much better than others. Panelists listed everything from improving transportation funding, road repairs, and the construction of new transit infrastructure to help improve those numbers.
When the panel took written questions from the audience it was noted that a majority of the questions dealt with the opinions and feasibility of the implementation of a local option tax.
The local option tax has been an issue on the radar here in Idaho since earlier this year when Governor Butch Otter made the announcement that he would support a local option tax to help offset the repeal of the local property tax.
Governor Otter noted that “nearly everyone agrees” the local property tax is “an unfair drag on our economy,” and that a local option tax would help reduce the impact of such a revenue loss. It appears, though, that based on current legislation proposals which cap the local option tax to an increase of only one penny, it would not offset the large revenue losses from the removal of the property tax.
Graduate student April Hoy looked at sales tax rate increases to establish what would be necessary to equal out to the losses of the property tax, and it is significantly more than a penny. For a more in depth look at the proposed repeal of the local property tax check out Nathaniel Hoffman’s analysis.
Regardless of whether or not the repeal of the local property tax is a smart financial decision, it is interesting to note that panelist Republican State Senator Chuck Winder is also in support of a local option tax. His support however comes in the form of a strategy similar to an Oklahoma City plan that allows citizens to approve projects, raise money and then see project completion after the funds have been raised.
There is certainly a use for a structure such as the one supported by Winder, as it would allow for transportation infrastructure project development that might not otherwise get funded. There is a severe lack of funding going towards Idaho’s transportation systems for both maintenance and new infrastructure with deficits sitting at 262 million for just maintenance alone. It could prove that the local option tax could help overcome this shortage, or at the very least give Idaho one more financial tool.
The panel discussion at the conference indicated that this is not going to be an easy issue to solve. With responses ranging from hopeful optimism to a total lack of comment, it is easy to see that it comes with a good bit of political controversy. Based on previous discussions about a local option tax, the legislation could easily fail to even make an appearance on the ballot. Growing support from conservative Senator Chuck Winder and Governor Butch Otter may indicate a slight change in perceptions in the group that has traditionally opposed this type of increased taxation.
Overall the conference was a great success and it provided members of the community an opportunity to come together to think about the future of infrastructure development in the regional Northwest and here in Idaho. Idaho has the opportunity to invest in infrastructure that could help improve the built environment, and it’s events like this one that can begin to get the community and projects activated.