Senate boss calls on colleagues to address tax commission
Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, the president pro-tem of the Senate, says the Legislature should look at restructuring the Idaho Tax Commission to make the agency more transparent.
Hill doesn't think there's anything fishy about past settlements approved by commissioners that Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, says were sweetheart deals for powerful taxpayers, like multi-state corporations. The breaks have cost citizens around $75 million, Ringo says.
As former chairman of the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee, Hill reviewed a number of cases two years ago when former auditor Stan Howland first accused agency commissioners in 2008 of arbitrarily granting unjustified breaks.
"I did not find anything that was disturbing to me in any way," Hill said, noting that two independent investigations also concluded commissioners had done no wrong. If Ringo is talking about the same old stuff then Hill isn't interested in a new inquiry, but if she's on to something new, then something should be done, he said.
Hill said he wants new legislation to protect commissioners from easily being accused of wrongdoing and that the system in place makes it easy to question commissioners.
Assistant Minority Leader Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, says everything seems on the up and up at the tax commission but he supports a review of past contentious cases and a debate about restructuring.
"I have yet to see anything where somebody has represented a case where a settlement has been unreasonably in favor of a taxpayer," he said.
Regarding settlements Ringo sued the state over, Bock said, "I don't know what happened in these tax settlements, I don't know what was the basis. It could be that the state tax commission has taken overly aggressive positions. Sometimes somebody has got a strong case. When you look at these settlements you have to look at individual cases.”
Should someone do that? Bock: "What I would support is to have some kind of commission that would actually do that. I think they should go back and look at stuff to understand if there is some reasonable basis for the lawsuit."
Ringo sued the tax commission earlier this year — on Nov. 23, Ada County District Court Judge Cheri Copsey threw out the case, ruling that Ringo, as a legislator, didn't have standing to sue the state and that she could not claim personal injury as a result of the commission depriving the state of tax revenue that would largely go to K-12 schools and the University of Idaho.
But the judge went out of her way to make clear that the dismissal had nothing to do with Ringo's assertions.
“The court reluctantly grants the state’s motion, but I want to make it clear my reading of the material suggests strongly that there needs to be some action taken. Unfortunately, I don’t think the courts system is the party, is the appropriate forum to take that action,” Copsey said. “She (Ringo) has made many very troubling allegations and they’re supported by a number of affidavits that if true are very disturbing and concerning. If true they cry out for some remedy or some action."
Bock said taxpayers involved in settlements deserve privacy, but that the public deserves to know settlements makes sense.
Majority Caucus Chairman Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, said legislators keeping an eye on the Tax Commission report that commissioners "are operating under the current law." He didn't call for legislation but said he thinks the commission "should be as transparent as possible," but that he too is wary of violating taxpayers' privacy.
Tax commissioners Royce Chigbrow, Sam Haws, Tom Katsilometes, and David Langhorst refused to comment for this story.
A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed comments made by Sen. Les Bock to Sen. Chuck Winder.