Clark Corbin

(Idaho Capital Sun) On this year’s general election ballot, Idaho voters will be asked whether they approve or disapprove of action Gov. Brad Little and the Idaho Legislature took on taxes and education funding during the Sept. 1 special session.

The nonbinding question will appear on the ballot as the Idaho Advisory Question. Voters will be asked whether they “approve” or “disapprove” of Little and the Idaho Legislature using the state’s $2 billion budget surplus to pay for $500 million in tax rebates, while approving ongoing income tax cuts and directing more than $410 million annually to public education and career training.

Little and the Idaho Legislature’s plan has already been enacted into law as House Bill 1. Whichever way Idahoans vote on the Idaho Advisory Question, that won’t change. A vote against the Idaho Advisory Question won’t repeal that law.

Instead, Little’s press secretary Madison Hardy said the Idaho Advisory Question is meant to give guidance to the Idaho Legislature. Hardy said Little and the law’s legislative co-sponsors agreed on the language of the Idaho Advisory Question, and House Bill 1 directed that language to appear on the ballots this year.

The law says “the results (of the advisory vote) will guide the Legislature as to whether the ongoing elements of this act shall continue.”

The $500 million tax rebates are already approved and should reach most Idahoans who filed their taxes on time by Thanksgiving, Little previously told the Sun. But the education funding increases and the action to reduce the income tax rate from 6% to 5.8% and create a flat tax rate are ongoing.

“All of the language in House Bill 1, including the advisory question, reflects the detailed discussion and careful collaboration that occurred between the governor and legislators in the days and weeks ahead of the Sept. 1 extraordinary session to ensure an efficient and expedient outcome for the people of Idaho,” Hardy said.

Political scientist calls Idaho Advisory Question a Republican campaign ad

Political scientist David Adler, who serves as president of the Idaho Falls-based Alturas Institute and has taught constitutional law, government and politics at Idaho universities, says the advisory question includes phrases like “hardworking Idahoans” and “record inflation” in an attempt to persuade voters into supporting it.

“In other words, who would not want to support ‘hardworking Idahoans,’ who would not want to do this?” Adler said in a telephone interview. “A genuine advisory question would not include those leading statements in an attempt to influence public opinion.”

Instead, Adler said the question is designed to build support for legislators who approved the tax cuts and education funding increases after volunteers and organizers from Reclaim Idaho succeeded in qualifying an earlier education funding initiative for the ballot.

The special session law that Little and the Idaho Legislature approved was designed to repeal Reclaim Idaho’s Quality Education Act if it passed, so Reclaim Idaho organizers withdrew the education funding initiative and said they would instead focus on holding Little and the Idaho Legislature accountable for fulfilling the education funding commitments from the special session law.

Adler said Little and the Legislature would not have pursued such a large increase in education funding without Reclaim Idaho gathering signatures and support for the Quality Education Act.

“This is really about a campaign ad asking Idaho voters to pat Republicans on the back for doing what Reclaim Idaho had really accomplished,” Adler said.

Little has denied similar statements previously, saying the combination of the state’s budget surplus and rising inflation rates caused him to push for the special session law in September instead of waiting for the next session in January.

Reclaim Idaho says it remains neutral on advisory question

As an organization, Reclaim Idaho is neutral on the Idaho Advisory Question, Reclaim Idaho co-founder Luke Mayville said in a telephone interview.

“Mainly because there is very little at stake in whether people vote the question up or down,” Mayville said. “Our time and energy is much better spent making sure the governor and Legislature follow through in the upcoming legislative session on their promise to invest $410 million in public schools, and there is not much to be gained by advocating one way or the other on the advisory question.”

In his interview, Mayville also flagged some of the language in the Idaho Advisory Question, saying he wished the language would have been written by a neutral third party such as the Idaho Attorney General’s Office.

“It is illegal to stand within 100 feet of a polling station and advocate one way or the other for a candidate or measure,” Mayville said. “But this advisory question, arguably, is electioneering on the ballot itself.”

Mayville also questioned the accuracy of claiming the special session law would be the “single largest investment in public education in Idaho history.”

If adjusting for inflation, Mayville said that a funding increase for public education approved in 1965 would have been larger. In 1965, the Idaho Legislature established the sales tax and set it at 3% to raise money for education, according to the Idaho School Boards Association’s timeline and the Idaho Legislature’s Joint Sales Tax Exemption Task Force.

Are advisory votes common in Idaho?

Advisory questions are rare in Idaho.

An Idaho Capital Sun analysis of election results from 1994 to 2022 available through the Secretary of State’s Office website found advisory questions have appeared on ballots twice in the past 28 years. The most recent example came in 2006 when Idaho voters were asked whether they approved or disapproved of a tax shift then-Gov. Jim Risch and the Idaho Legislature approved.

That shift eliminated the maintenance and operations property tax levy and added a sixth cent to Idaho sales tax. In the advisory vote that year, 72% of Idahoans voted to affirm the Legislature’s action on taxes.

The other example of an advisory vote came in 1998, when voters were asked whether Idaho’s law on term limits should remain in place. On the ballots, 53% of Idahoans voted yes, but the Idaho Legislature repealed term limits laws in 2002 anyway.