Saturday, October 30, 2010

Idaho Initiatives

While generally ignoring the last minute hit pieces, I use the last weekend to study initiatives on the ballot.

Here in Idaho, there are four initiatives on the statewide ballot.

S.J.R. 101 authorizes the Board of Regents of the University of Idaho to impose tuition on students.  What?  You didn't realize that they did not charge tuition to students?  Much like the University of California used to pretend that we were paying "fees," not tuition, the University of Idaho, apparently because of its land grant university origins, pretends not to be charging tuition.  Other state universities and colleges are allowed to charge tuition. 

The argument for allowing this is to make it consistent across the state.  I suspect that the real goal is to allow the University of Idaho to get more of its operating costs from students, and less from the state government.  While I do believe that there is a virtue to making public university education readily available, I also know that there are a lot of people who get pretty useless degrees because they are not paying even a significant fraction of the costs.  Perhaps if there was a bit more connection between actual costs and student payments, some students would think through whether their education is worth anything.  Of course, since this only affects University of Idaho--which educates only a relatively small fraction of Idaho's college students, I rather doubt that this is going to be a big net change.

The opponents argue that "the state could provide the additional funding to cover the costs of classroom instruction at the University of Idaho."  Yeah, like Idaho has lots of money laying about with nothing better to spend it on than the University of Idaho.  Why should U. of I. get advantages that Boise State does not?

I think (unless someone can convince me otherwise), that I am going to vote YES on this.

H.J.R. 4, 5, and 7 all seem to be slight variants on the same basic theme: authorizing, respectively, public hospitals, airports, and municipal electric utilities, "to incur indebtedness or liability to purchase, contract, lease or construct or otherwise acquire facilities, equipment, technology and real property for health care operations, provided that no ad valorem tax revenues shall be used for such activities?"  That's the language from H.J.R. 4, and 5 and 7 are similar, although not identical.

What does this really mean?  It appears that each of these categories of local public institutions are currently required to get a 2/3 approval of the voters before incurring any long-term debt.  This change to the state constitution would eliminate that requirement, allowing these institutions to borrow money, as long as the repayment costs were paid other than from property taxes.  In short, hospitals, airports, and municipal electric utilities could float such bonds if they were to be repaid from user fees--but not from property taxes.

At first glance, this does not seem like a bad thing.  This won't simplify raising property taxes at all, and it does make it easier to borrow money for public improvements.  I do worry a bit, however, about how allowing these public institutions to increase their total indebtedness without a vote of the people might increase the risk of these institutions getting in over their heads in debt.  Remember that these are not temporary tax increases, which can be turned off at the next election--these are public institutions floating municipal bonds, which are usually 30 year duration.

I am not generally partial to allowing governments to get into long-term debt without substantial public agreement that it is necessary and makes sense.   As a result, I'm planning to vote no on all three of these.


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  2. You've explained the difference between general obligation and revenue bonds before. Would the bonds allowed by the three propositions be classified as revenue bonds (which could default if revenue doesn't meet projections), or as general obligation bonds?

  3. I'm no expert on this, but I am pretty sure these would be revenue bonds, not general obligation bonds. Since they can't be paid back from property taxes, I am guessing that they aren't general obligations.