College scholarship checkoff gets approval


Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, defends the Boise School District funding a district teacher to serve as union president.

Idaho lawmakers approved adding an additional box on income tax forms to allow taxpayers to contribute to a college scholarship fund, but rejected a similar box that could benefit political parties.  Both the House and Senate approved a plan backed by Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, that would put a checkoff box for tax returns for the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship Fund, which helps meet the cost of some Idahoans’ college tuition and fees.  Sayler said adding a box on tax returns could net the program roughly $50,000 a year, which would translate into 18 additional scholarships.

“I believe there is a need for additional funding, and this would be a step in the right direction,” Sayler said during a Senate hearing on the plan.  “It is purely an opportunity for people to contribute through their tax return.”  Any donations for scholarships would come out of a taxpayer’s return or tax liability, not money headed into state coffers.

The Idaho Opportunity Scholarship Program was created in 2007 with the support of Gov. Butch Otter.  The fund goal for the scholarships is $100 million, but lawmakers have only found $20 million, due to dwindling state tax revenues.  Lawmakers didn’t find any additional money for the scholarship program this year, so the program can only renew scholarships for students already in college.

The House approved adding the scholarship donation box without opposition, though five senators voted against the plan.  Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, cast one of the no votes.  He said he doesn’t have anything against helping students go to college.  “The cause is good as any that we have on the donation list, but also as good as any of the 500 we decline to support though these means,” he said.  “I would like to eliminate the list because of the preference that I find troubling by this Legislature finding favor of organizations to bless.”  Idaho income tax forms also include checkoff boxes for child abuse prevention, veterans’ support, wildlife conservation, and other funds.

One checkoff box that will disappear after this year’s filings is a $1 contribution for political parties.  Lawmakers eliminated that option, which drew money that would have gone to the state general fund, earlier this session.  An attempt by Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, to create a different checkoff box for political parties, with the money coming from tax refunds rather than potential state dollars, failed to clear a House committee after being introduced in February.

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