It seems like the Idaho Legislature is in the business of reform in 2011.
This week, the Idaho Senate begins work on a public school reform package, but the House is examining a slew of bills that could revamp how urban renewal agencies conduct business in the Gem State.
Republican lawmakers from several districts – and a lobbyist from Meridian – teamed up to propose the package, which included seven bills. Only one piece of legislation failed in the committee hearing, though the bill only needs slight wording changes before it will be back before lawmakers. The other six bills received unanimous approval from the seldom-convened House Local Government Committee.
Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, proposed two bills crafted to give the general public more input on urban renewal. One bill would require that before any project plans are finalized, districts must hold public hearings and take comments on developments. “There is a feeling that the public is somehow being shut out of the process of urban renewal,” said Hart.
A separate piece of legislation proposed by the Athol Republican would force urban renewal districts to obtain a two-thirds vote of approval by county resident prior to taking bonds to fund projects. “This is similar to what we already require from school districts,” said Hart.
Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Post Falls, is also targeting transparency with his bill. His legislation would require that renewal agencies provide clear descriptions to taxpayers of projects, and include details of financing, project runtimes, and other vital information in an open manner. “We have heard that taxpayers weren’t informed clearly what the concepts of the project were,” said Nonini, who added that he’s heard about urban renewal officials changing project guidelines without taxpayer consent.
The Nonini bill would also require agencies to return money to other taxing districts if a renewal project ended with money left over.
Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Eagle, went a different direction with his bill, targeting the way districts are financed. The funding formula is fairly complex, but basically when taxpayers of an already-formed taxing district – i.e. a school, fire, or highway district – vote to raise taxes for that entity, urban renewal districts also see increases in dollar amounts. Moyle’s bill would allow the local taxing districts to opt out of urban renewal projects.
Moyle also helped with another bill proposed by Scott Turlington, a lobbyist for the Meridian Urban Renewal District. The second Moyle bill would shorten the maximum length of urban renewal districts from 24 to 20 years, declare how vacancies on oversight boards should be filled, and require districts to obtain written consent from agricultural land owners for inclusion in a urban renewal project.
Rep. Bob Schaefer, R-Nampa, got in on the action with his bill to repeal urban renewal altogether. Schaefer said the original purpose of urban renewal has been heavily distorted and the law needs to be removed.
The only legislation turned down by the panel was a measure by Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene. Sims’ bill would have created five-member oversight boards for all urban renewal districts. Five members, she said, is just the right number. “It’s large enough to be diverse, yet small enough … for accountability,” she said.
With her bill, Sims, a freshman in the House, is targeting abuse of urban renewal laws. “I can’t believe I am finally here and finally talking about urban renewal,” said Sims. “It’s been on my mind for years. It’s been abused for many years. Predators move in and exploit its good intentions.”
Sims told IdahoReporter.com in December that urban renewal reform is her main priority in the Legislature.
The bill was derailed due to a language snafu regarding who would be eligible to serve on oversight boards. Sims, a freshman legislator, pledged to bring the bill again once the change is made.
There is no date for future hearings on any of the measures and it is unclear if all seven will be heard in a single meeting the next time the panel broaches the topic.
Note: Employees of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, the publisher of IdahoReporter.com, were heavily involved in the creation of the urban renewal legislation.