The Idaho House of Representatives voted Friday to pass a bill that would eliminate the March and August election dates that school districts use to run bond issues and supplemental levies.
Under current Idaho law, there are four specific dates on the calendar when schools can run elections:
- The second Tuesday in March.
- The third Tuesday in May.
- The last Tuesday in August.
- The Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
If House Bill 58 is passed into law, school districts would only be allowed to run bond issues and supplemental levy elections during the May primary election and the November general election when races for partisan offices take place.
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Supporters of the bill said eliminating the two election dates would increase voter turnout, reduce the costs of running elections and prevent school districts from running bonds or levies multiples times in quick succession if one is rejected by voters.
But opponents of the bill warned that eliminating the two election dates could put school districts in a financial bind by limiting when a school district can go to voters to seek supplemental funding for things like teacher contracts and raises and could politicize the nonpartisan school elections by forcing them on the same ballots as legislative races, the presidential election and other partisan races.
Voter turnout, repetitive ballot measures are reasons why bill should pass, sponsor says
Rep. Joe Alfieri, R-Coeur d’Alene, sponsored the bill.
“What we’re seeing with these interim elections is school bonds and levies being passed with a very small minority, and they are dictating the taxing that will be imposed on the public,” Alfieri said.
“If we want to really be a representative republic we have to have the greatest voter turnout that we can have and that voter turnout occurs in May and in November when normal elections are held,” Alfieri said in his floor debate. “Going back continuously and knocking on the door and asking people to vote on things that have already been decided is frankly wrong, and that is what is going on with these interim elections.”
Turnout is generally lower in the March and August elections, which are reserved just for school bonds and levies, than in the May and November elections, where there are also usually more contested races and issues for voters to weigh in on. For example, in March 2021, turnout was 8.9% for a Kuna School District supplemental levy election. In November 2021, turnout was 23.8% for an election that included Boise, Kuna, Garden City, Eagle and Meridian city council races as well as a West Ada School District supplemental levy and local school board elections.
An Idaho Education News analysis of election data from 2014 through 2019 found that the March date that Alfieri’s bill would eliminate was the most popular election date for school bonds and levies, with 59% of Idaho school bonds and levies run on that March date. Former Idaho School Board Association director Karen Echeverria told Idaho Education News at the time that schools must issue teacher contracts for the upcoming school year by June 1 each year. The March election date allows a school district to go to voters with a supplemental levy to fill in any financial gaps for salaries and benefits before contract negotiations. By the time the May and November election days roll around, it’s too late for schools.
“By May, most school budgets are locked into what they are going to do,” Rep. Jack Nelsen, R- Jerome, said in floor debate Friday. “Obviously their staff needs the (assurance) of having a job come the end of August.”
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Rep. Greg Lanting, R-Twin Falls, said school districts also use supplement levies or bonds to keep up with a collective $900 million worth of deferred maintenance. The ability to go to voters to ask them to approve a bond or supplemental levy is one tool schools have to address that maintenance when state funding falls short.
“If we move this to May and November, we may never see a bond issue pass, is that really what we want?” Lanting said during floor debate.
In the end, the Idaho House voted 43-26 to pass the bill.
House Bill 58 heads next to the Idaho Senate for consideration.