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Out of sight, but important

For a state that hates government so much, Idaho sure has a lot of it.

Idahoans have single-purpose districts for airports and hospitals, sewer systems and mosquito abatement. Idaho has government “closest to the people” to handle fires, irrigation, highways, cemeteries and auditoriums. Idahoans hate government so much that they often make it largely ineffective and remarkably inefficient – maybe that is the point, come to think of it – by hiding away a five-person board over here and a special-purpose taxing district over there.

While the state Legislature has been busy creating all this government at the local level – remember, these are the same folks who regularly hold up Washington, D.C., on as an example of the inherent evils of a distant and menacing government – state lawmakers grant almost no real taxing authority to Idaho cities or counties. The state constitution places severe limits on government debt, and local option taxation has been so unpopular in the legislature for the last 40 years it might as well be a Stalinist plot.

There is no funding source for local transit service. Want to build a new library or police station? For the most part, Mr. Mayor and City Council, you have a choice: Either save your money, or beg the taxpayer for supermajority approval to levy a bond. The legislative and constitutional constraints are so severe that the City of Boise had to lead the charge to change the state constitution a while back in order to expand parking at the Boise airport – an expansion that will be paid for entirely from revenue derived from folks who park cars to use the airport. Before the change, which had to be approved by voters statewide, even that type of “user fee” revenue couldn’t be used to upgrade airport facilities.

When you consider the various restrictions on local government’s ability to make investments in brick and mortar, it is suddenly obvious why we build so little in the way of local infrastructure. And Idaho is – don’t forget – a state where local control is sacred, until it isn’t.

Lacking the tools that are common in places as politically conservative as Oklahoma City and Ozone, Tenn. (37 states have local option taxes) Idaho cities are left trying to make the most of what few tricks they can pull from a tiny hat.

Here is a brief tour around the hat. Boise has a city government with certain limited powers to collect property taxes to finance public services. Most of this revenue is devoted to police, fire, library and general government services. To advance downtown development, the city years ago created a urban renewal agency, now known as the Capital City Development Corporation, a quasi-local government agency also with limited authority. For instance, CCDC has developed and owns most of the parking structures in the downtown area and can use tax increment financing to further certain types of development within its established boundary.

In 1959, the Legislature authorized and Boise voters approved what became the Greater Boise Auditorium District. This additional local government creature of state law is completely separate from the city and from CCDC. GBAD does have a dedicated source of revenue: a hotel/motel tax on folks who visit Boise and spend their money in the capital city. GBAD, within certain limits, can spend this money – currently several million in cash – on “public auditoriums, exhibition halls, convention centers, sports arenas and facilities of a similar nature.”

That’s just about the sum total of scattered and very limited infrastructure “tools” available to any Idaho city.

If all this sounds a little like Afghan tribal politics, you’re getting the idea. The city has a mayor and an elected council. CCDC has a board appointed by the mayor with approval of the council. The city and its urban renewal agency have, to a degree, overlapping membership, but separate staff. GBAD has its own elected board, elected from a “district” that has different boundary lines than the city or the redevelopment agency.

In a perfect world, all these “units of government” would get together, agree on priorities, find a way to maximize the meager resources the control freaks in the legislature have granted them and build some things to create an even better city. But they haven’t, and as a result, Boise hasn’t built much in the way of major public infrastructure in many years.

For years the city has had a wish list of public projects, including a new main library, a second neighborhood library at Bown Crossing, a streetcar system, and a multiuse sports facility that could be home to minor league baseball, soccer, high school sports and community events. The city has made nominal progress on these infrastructure priorities, not for lack of desire, but rather for lack of money.

GBAD has long advocated an expanded downtown convention center and has continued to bank money against that prospect even as doubt after doubt has been raised about the wisdom of such a move, particularly in the location the district has reserved for such a building. The expansion idea also lost steam while GBAD board members engaged in a nasty, protracted and distracting public spat about funding for the city’s convention and visitor bureau, a spat apparently now resolved. What remains is the question of what exactly GBAD wants to do with its money and authority, which brings us back to local, quasi-governmental entities that are mostly out of sight, but still important.

To put it bluntly, the only local entity with a guaranteed source of revenue, albeit with a limited mandate on which to spend those resources, essentially has no plan for what to do with its money. Does it revisit the idea of a larger if not optimally located convention center? Does it try to expand at its current site? Does it engage in planning a multipurpose sports facility? (Full disclosure: I have advocated for the stadium approach.) Or does it, as some are now suggesting, find a way to financially support a downtown theater space that might work in the old Macy’s department store building? Or what? And more importantly, what does the community really need and want?

On May 21, voters within the auditorium district – again, the boundaries are different from the city – will vote to fill three of the five seats on the board. If history is a guide, a couple thousand voters will make the decision, and the district will quietly fade out of sight without the necessary debate about community priorities. It would be a shame. I’d like to know what each of the candidates thinks are the district’s priorities and just how they might approach getting in sync with those who should be their downtown playmates. Such a conversation in front of an election might give the community a sense of whether any consensus can be found on anything.

I would obviously be delighted to have a robust community debate about the wisdom and wherefore of a public-private approach to a new sports facility for baseball and soccer, but if not that idea, what?

Other cities are on the move. The city of El Paso, Texas – not my idea of a robust and economically powerful place – just began work on a new downtown stadium that will house a Triple-A team next year. Morgantown, W.Va., and Richmond, Va., are working on similar projects. San Diego is working on a convention center expansion, and Phoenix has completed its expansion. Oklahoma City reinvented itself over the last decade with a ballpark, a convention center and other major public infrastructure.

GBAD built the Boise Centre more than 20 years ago, and it has clearly become a major community asset. But ask yourself: What else has the community really gotten behind since the Morrison Center was sited on the Boise State University campus back in 1984, nearly 30 years ago? Great cities build great public assets. It was easier in the days when the legendary urban developer Robert Moses waved his fist and a public facility was created in New York City. It’s admittedly much more difficult when the tools are scarce and the few tools you have are so widely dispersed.

Idaho’s convoluted and fragmented system of local government entities almost ensures that nothing much will happen unless all the local players find a way to get on the same page. As a new nation, we long ago ditched the unworkable Articles of Confederation in favor of a government able to make decisions and levy taxes to pay for those decisions. Such an elegant solution seems beyond the state legislature’s capacity. Instead, one of the most conservative legislatures in the nation has given us the curious reality of more government than we want and less government than we need. And when all this government can’t agree on much of anything, that is precisely what we get: not much of anything.

Pay attention to the GBAD election. It might be a chance to get something done in Idaho’s capital city.

Marc Johnson is a partner at the Boise-based Gallatin Public Affairs. He led the firm’s Boise office for 18 years and served as company president for five years. Prior to joining Gallatin, he served as press secretary and chief of staff to Cecil D. Andrus, Idaho’s only four-term governor. Marc blogs at manythingsconsidered.com.

About Marc Johnson

2 comments

  1. Yeah Marc, and your old boss, the world-class windbag himself, “Colonel Andrus” vetoed constitutional home-rule for Idaho when he was governor.

    What a visionary…..right.

    Spoken like a true Idaho lobbyist, who really does hate genuine local control in this day & age of the Internet.

  2. Nice work, Marc. In 1890 Boise-based representatives to the Idaho Constitutional Convention (remember Boise preceded the State by about three decades) complained even then that the boilerplate state constitution they were considering had already been proven to be outmoded by the states from which they adopted it. Boise was the only real urban area in the state at the time, and it was only beginning to experience the pains of paying for roads, streetlights, water and sewer. But even then many knew that Idaho’s Constitution wasn’t going to work. Today, the overwhelming majority of the state GDP comes from the urban areas – BOI, CDA, Lewiston, Twin, Idaho Falls – but the legislators even from the Boise Valley seem to think of this place as small hamlet. When that changes, or the aggregate of urban areas start demanding real representation at the State Capitol, we might get somewhere. Until then, just being barely better than Alabama on most economic indicators seems to be just good enough.