By Rick Just and Jeff Nafsinger
Property taxes pay for some of the basic public services you have come to expect, including first responders, law enforcement, roads, and schools.
As candidates for the Legislature, we believe in protecting these services while ensuring the necessary revenue is collected in a fair way. Unfortunately, the Republican majority in the Idaho Legislature has failed when it comes to fairness. Since the GOP capped the homeowner’s exemption in 2016, we have seen an ever-growing shift of the property tax load onto homeowners and away from commercial interests. While residents are seeing big jumps in their property tax bills, property tax bills are going down for many corporate-owned buildings. In the name of fairness, we need to strike a better balance.
We are among the many Idahoans who received property tax assessments showing big jumps in our home values. We understand why many are nervous about whether they will be able to afford to stay in their home. The good news is that there are simple property tax solutions that would take us back to a better balance.
First, we have to undo the damage caused by the cap on the homeowner’s exemption. Our homeowner’s exemption used to rise automatically with market values. That way, when home values went up, the value of the homeowner’s exemption (the amount that wasn’t taxable) also rose. Republicans in the Idaho Legislature caved to lobbyists in 2016 and removed this annual adjustment. Homeowners lost this protection just as their home values started to soar. Lawmakers approved a one-time increase in the maximum exemption from $100,000 to $125,000 in 2021, but it would be valued at $175,000 today if it were still indexed to home values. In 2016, residents carried 62% of the tax load, according to an article in the Idaho Capital Sun. That jumped to 71% in 2021.
We talk with homeowners almost every day to find out what their biggest concerns are. Time and again rising property taxes are their first or second concern. It’s time to recognize that capping the homeowners exemption in 2016 was a mistake that we need to correct.
Second, we must update property tax assistance for seniors on fixed incomes. Our property tax reduction program, the “circuit-breaker,” has not kept up with the growth in property taxes. We need to increase the total amount of assistance available, increase the income threshold so that more people qualify and allow residents of all ages to participate.
Third, we have to make growth fully pay for itself. Today, local governments can collect impact fees on new housing developments to pay for the new infrastructure (e.g. sewer lines) that the development will need. This prevents current property taxpayers from subsidizing growth. We need to give school districts this same tool so that they collect impact fees to pay for the portion of new school construction that will be needed. The only tool that schools have now is the bond, which is paid for by every taxpayer in the district. Allowing school districts to collect impact fees would reduce property taxes in parts of Idaho that are experiencing population growth.
Republican legislators keep finding the ‘political will’ to heap ever more income tax breaks onto the wealthy and well-connected. This year they spent $600 million on rebates and permanent tax cuts. The richer you are, the bigger the check they mailed you — all while homeowners with more modest means struggled. Now it’s time to address the needs of working Idaho families and seniors.
Jeff Nafsinger is running for the House in District 15. Rick Just is running for the Senate in District 15. This opinion piece appeared originally in the July 3