Idaho State Capitol

‘Why Are You Afraid of a Vote?’

Those were the words of one of the sponsors of HB217, which passed out of the full Idaho House of Representatives on Monday, and is on its way to the Senate. The bill would further restrict the Local Economic Development Act, the main funding tool that local jurisdictions in Idaho have to catalyze economic development projects. Part of the bill would require a 55% supermajority vote on the use of any urban renewal district funds for any public building. We’re used to these attacks on local control from a number of Idaho legislators, who are comfortable with votes that allow a minority to rule. (Not surprisingly, some of them are now attempting to eliminate or restrict the recent citizen initiative vote to expand Medicaid in Idaho, approved by over 61% of voters.)

The alarming difference in the case of HB217 is that it is also supported by a number of prominent and progressive Boise residents, whose voiced concerns were not generally about economic development but specifically about two proposed large public projects: a new downtown library and a multipurpose stadium. They feel that these projects are too expensive and impactful, that citizen voices aren’t being heard in the planning, and they’re willing to adopt this legislation as a way to stop them, regardless of any other consequences.

I believe this is a symptom of the growth fatigue that is afflicting Boise and other Idaho metros. People are rightly concerned about the impacts of rapid population growth and the development that follows it. Idaho Smart Growth and others are working to help people grapple constructively with growth; our Citizens Planning Academy is one example. When people come together to solve problems there’s no expectation that everyone is going to be happy with the results, but they can feel good about the process. By contrast, requiring a vote on all public investments ensures even more divisiveness, especially when a minority of voters prevail. One reason to be “afraid of a vote” like this is because it’s undemocratic: if you’re for it, you get one vote but if you’re against it, your vote counts as more than one—10% more, in this case.  

Preemptive state legislation is the wrong way to deal with occasional local conflicts. Too many good and even uncontroversial projects won’t get built. Many of the Grow Smart Award recipients over the years had some public funding through urban renewal, including the Grove Plaza and the convention center in Boise, the Nampa public library, the Twin Falls downtown project and the Moscow transit center. It’s quite possible that these projects would have received a supermajority approval in a vote, but the time and expense it takes to mount a campaign, for an election that can occur only on two days in a year, would squelch public investment. Few lenders, bond purchasers or developers are going to put up with the uncertainty this would bring. A version of the project might occur anyway, but the public will not be part of it. The community will not have the sense of pride and ownership that comes from visionary investment in its public realm.

Communities are best served by local solutions and decisions. There already is a vote that we should not be afraid of: if you don’t like your elected representatives’ decisions, vote for someone else.

This editorial commentary was published in the Idaho Business Review.

Other legislation we are watching:

We opposed H127a which would have changed the Local Land Use Planning Act to allow counties to opt out of comprehensive planning and land use ordinances. We thought this bill was going in the wrong direction in the fastest growing state in the U.S. to ask jurisdictions to make important land-use decisions without a plan for guidance. As of March 12, the bill failed to move forward.

H76 regulates and properly defines e-bikes in Idaho Code. The bill has passed both the House and Senate and awaits the Governor’s signature.