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Tipping the Scales 

Why the Gem State may be getting better and better

If you consider yourself a lonely, independent thinker just living in North Idaho because you love it, do not despair. You are not the only soul worrying about Idaho's bottom-of-the-barrel status. Hope is on the way. It's called Better Idaho.

Better Idaho is the name of a website (betteridaho.org) that will make you laugh, cry, think and generally feel a lot better. Better Idaho is the creation of a young man, Derek Farr, who arrived in Idaho County from Wyoming five years ago and got hooked on the look, feel, beauty, space and ineffable appeal of rural Idaho.

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Better Idaho is communicating like crazy from a progressive point of view, using visuals and graphics and shock and awesome humor. According to Farr, Better Idaho's style is "defiant, funny and germane."

Defiant because independent thinkers don't play follow the leader. Bethine Church, wife of longtime Idaho Sen. Frank Church, used to say that Democrats in Idaho are like salmon, always swimming upstream against the current. Remaining "germane" keeps the oxygen in the water, the room or the website.

Farr says Better Idaho's "work is visual because humans are visual creatures. A quick glance of the magazines at the checkout stand in the grocery store affirms this."

Better Idaho also uses humor. On your computer screen, you can see Idaho Gov. Butch Otter making a sun-striped grand entrance to the words "Onward to 2009!" The copy that follows applauds the governor's recommendations to increase funding levels for education. It asks, "Is it too late for a state to dream big? If everything goes according to plan this legislative session, Idaho will make a significant achievement: 2009!"

The site then lists the collateral damage Idaho has sustained in the seven intervening years: 44 Idaho school districts now operate on a four-day school week, and their scores are lagging behind state averages. Ninety-four of Idaho's 115 Idaho school districts now depend on supplemental levies to operate.

One stated purpose of Better Idaho is to reverse the dwindling of the American middle class and to revive the American dream. All this smart thinking and raucous fun is happening down the state road a piece — in Grangeville, Idaho, on Mountain Time — at the north end of the gorgeous Camas Prairie. Farr says he can see Pacific Time from his window.

A second engine of hope is the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, which was founded in 2011 by Mike Ferguson, Idaho's former chief economist, for the purpose of providing fact-based information on state budget and tax issues to interested members of the public.

Few people can frolic comfortably in the field of taxes and budgets, so the center does a real service in watchdogging the interests of every Idaho John or Jane Doe taxpayer, as well as the state and its cities and counties.

The center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with a decidedly centrist approach to financial policy. The center's advisory board includes former Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Jerry Evans, former Republican State Senator Hal Bunderson, and other knowledgeable academics, business leaders and public citizens.

Lauren Necochea is now the center's executive director. Necochea graduated from Pomona College with a degree in economics and received a masters in public affairs from Princeton University. She and her husband, Gary, live in Boise with their two very young daughters.

I find it immensely reassuring to have this totally nonpolitical resource in place to analyze Idaho's money matters. The center does not take positions for or against individual pieces of legislation. Necochea and her team let the numbers speak for themselves.

And the numbers speak volumes. Idaho's total tax collections per person are the second-lowest in the country. And as we still blush to admit, Idaho is next to last in the country in dollars it spends per student.

In 2015, Necochea and her team were successful in shining the light on a questionable bill that would have substituted a flat tax for Idaho's slightly graduated income tax.

This month, the Center for Fiscal Policy has issued a summary of four proposals from the Idaho Legislature's Tax Working Group. These four proposals would reduce Idaho state revenues by up to $64.5 million a year and take another $21.4 million away from local governments.

It's significant that the Tax Working Group, which was charged with making recommendations, did not recommend approval of any of the four proposals they have submitted for review.

Dear reader: When you are puzzling over the impact of potential tax breaks on Idaho's money-starved education system, please remember Better Idaho's welcome back to the year 2009, and the squeeze of the years in between.♦

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