During the third week in October, Mason-Dixon Polling and Research asked a cross-section of Idahoans what they thought the state’s top priority should be.
Spending more on public schools came in third with just 17 percent, behind recruiting new businesses and lower taxes on Idaho businesses. Higher education finished dead last; just 4 percent of respondents thought bailing out Idaho’s colleges and universities was Job One.
But it turns out that wasn’t the last word.
Last week, Portland, Ore.-based Moore Information released a poll taken at about the same time that found 82 percent of Idahoans are opposed to further cuts in education funding, and 69 percent are “strongly” opposed.
That got the attention of some in the Legislature, which will almost certainly reduce public school and higher ed funding for the next fiscal year because of the state’s hangover from the Great Recession.
What’s going on here?
In all likelihood, it’s the result of two different polling organizations asking different questions to two different groups of Idahoans. And the subject of the Moore poll was raising cigarette taxes, so that may have skewed some responses to questions about education.
But there’s another theory: Maybe the 7.5 percent reduction in public school funding is just now starting to hit home for many Idahoans.
After all, the school year started barely two months ago, and the more crowded classrooms and missing teachers — most public school instructors in Idaho are being furloughed — only now are being noticed by parents and patrons.
Many smaller school districts in the Magic Valley ran supplemental levies past the voters last spring and summer, but now the biggest — Twin Falls — is considering an election to get through the school year. That one district educates a quarter of the public school students in south-central Idaho.
Then too, parents who send their sons and daughters to Idaho’s public colleges and universities are still reeling from much higher tuition bills — up 11 percent this year at the University of Idaho, 9 percent at Boise State and Idaho State, and 5 percent at the College of Southern Idaho.
It’s hard to see how legislative budget writers can reverse those trends this year and next, but lawmakers are seriously considering significant new sources of revenue.
The most likely is an increase in Idaho’s 57-cents-per-pack cigarette tax, which is the lowest among all surrounding states and 42nd in the country; the national average is $1.45 a pack.
If the Moore poll is right, that notion has broad support among Idahoans. Seven-tenths of respondents would back a $1.50 hike — that’s a 263 percent increase — that would bring in an additional $52.3 million a year.
Just as importantly, the idea has the backing of state Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, chairman of the powerful House Revenue and Taxation Committee.
Another 71 percent of poll respondents endorse higher taxes on alcohol, but that’s less likely to happen. Idaho, after all, is in the retail liquor business, and charges what the market will bear. The state’s 15-cents-a-gallon beer tax hasn’t been raised since 1961 and its 45-cents-a-gallon wine tax has been unchanged for 39 years, but Idaho’s politically connected beer and wine distributors, retailers, bar owners and restaurateurs successfully blocked an increase two years ago and would probably be able to do so again.
Those who responded to the Moore poll strongly opposed raising Idaho’s sales tax, income tax or gas tax to deal with the state’s budget crunch, but there’s no question that “revenue enhancement,” as the legislators call it, will be on the front burner in the upcoming session. That hasn’t happened often in recent years.
Whether that extra revenue takes the form of a sin tax, suspending the grocery tax credit or hiring more auditors at the Idaho Tax Commission, lawmakers — who are excellent barometers of what their constituents are feeling — are about to shake the tree.