TWIN FALLS — Idaho legislators haven't given the state's non-resort communities much reason to think they can levy local option sales taxes anytime soon. But Twin Falls' city manager says the city should at least be able to ask local voters the question.
"I believe that all cities and counties should have the right to ask their citizens how they want to be taxed," Twin Falls City Manager Travis Rothweiler said.
The Legislature historically has been reluctant to raise taxes — or, to be more precise in this case, to pass a law that would give voters in more cities and counties the option of raising taxes. And after this year's election the already supermajority-Republican body got a bit more conservative and more Republican than it was before.
"I am not aware of any proposal that will come forward this legislative session," Rothweiler said. "I haven't heard of a single group or association that's going to ask the Legislature to ... consider local option tax."
Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, told the crowd at a fundraiser during his re-election campaign this fall basically the same thing — that the House Revenue and Taxation Committee is split at least 2-to-1 against the idea, making it unlikely to go anywhere even if someone were to bring a bill.
Hartgen said he would look at any bill before making up his mind. But he said many lawmakers view local option taxes as a form of "taxation without representation" for shoppers from outside coming into a community, and they worry about creating price disparities between communities.
Under current law, a handful of "resort cities" such as Ketchum and Stanley can, if the voters approve, levy an extra sales tax above and beyond the state's. Other cities cannot. Rothweiler believes his city should have the same option.
Twin Falls is the regional hub, with tens of thousands of nonresidents coming in every day to work and shop, and Rothweiler said the city's taxpayers pick up some of the costs of providing them services. For example, in 2015 about half of misdemeanor arrests in Twin Falls were of nonresidents, and Rothweiler said the 2016 numbers are on about the same track.
If schools can ask voters to levy an additional property tax, Rothweiler said, it makes sense to let other levels of government do the same with sales taxes.
Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, introduced legislation in the past to allow other local governments to levy local option sales taxes, but the money would have to be designated for a specific purpose. Rothweiler said he favors this approach, because using it to support regular government options would create a hole in the city's budget when the economy goes south and people start to spend less.
If Twin Falls had a local option tax, Rothweiler said, the community would have to discuss how to use it, but his priority list would include money to expand the city's trail system, a larger regional park that could serve as a community draw, a recreation center and public transportation. There has also been talk of using local option tax money to build a convention center.
The money, he said, would help "fund and achieve those projects that always seemed a little out of our reach."
Rothweiler said one estimate is that an additional tax of one-quarter of 1 percent would bring in a couple of million dollars a year in Twin Falls.
"We know a lot of goods and services," he said, "are procured within our city's borders."