BOISE • When taxpayer dollars and private enterprise mix, expect scrutiny.
On Thursday, the House Local Government Committee voted 4-9 to kill a bill that would limit Idaho's urban renewal agencies' ability to expand or create revenue allocation districts. The legislation was the latest shot in a years-long war to reign in URAs.
The bill would require city voters to approve the expansion of existing revenue allocation districts, as well as the creation of new ones. Rep. Kathleen Sims, R-Coeur d'Alene, said she was prompted to sponsor the bill after experiencing frustration with how some of her local urban renewal agencies spend money. She pointed to grants awarded by one district that, she said, didn't produce any tax revenue. Those examples included public art projects and downtown events.
Idaho Freedom Foundation lobbyist Erik Makrush said the change would put decisions closer to the taxpayers affected by URAs.
"There's little accountability within urban renewal districts," he said, adding that money given to businesses by agencies distorts competition between businesses.
"It's creating this winners-and-losers scenario," he said.
But others argued Idaho's urban renewal agencies offer one of the few economic development tools the state has to offer businesses. Ken McClure, lobbyist for Chobani, said the yogurt plant likely wouldn't have opened its new 1 million square foot facility in Twin Falls if the company hadn't had the option of paying for infrastructure upgrades with tax increment financing.
Twin Falls Urban Rewewal Agency executive director Melinda Anderson agreed, adding that decisions made by urban renewal agencies have other oversights: Public notices, letters sent to affected taxpayers, and hearings held in front of the planning and zoning commission and the city council.
Before the meeting, she pointed out that elections happen only twice a year. But industry moves faster than government, Anderson said, and often, businesses don't wait that long to make decisions on whether to move to the area, she said.
"(The bill) could be a big impediment for helping create new jobs in the state of Idaho, and certainly within the city of Twin Falls," she said.
Ultimately, the committee agreed.
This isn't the first time Idaho lawmakers asked for more accountability from urban renewal agencies.
In 2012, Sims sponsored a bill that would require voters to elect urban renewal board members. Currently, board members are appointed by the city council, mayor or county commissioners. Also that session, then-Rep. Robert Schaefer, R-Nampa, sponsored a bill that would repeal urban renewal agencies, and then-Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, sponsored a bill that would require a two-thirds vote for URAs to acquire new debt.
Other sessions in recent years have seen attempts to repeal urban renewal agencies, put sideboards on how the agencies spend excess funds, and add more provisions for public comment and testimony.
None of those bills advanced to the House floor.
During Thursday's meeting, McClure defended urban renewal agencies, saying that other states have more economic development tools than Idaho does.
"(Other states) have very, very full tool boxes," McClure said. "Idaho's tool box is almost empty, but this is one of them."