Idaho Supreme Court upholds grocery tax veto
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s contentious veto of legislation repealing the state’s 6 percent sales tax on groceries.
The high court’s decision comes after 30 state lawmakers filed a lawsuit claiming Otter took too long to veto the grocery tax repeal because he waited longer than 10 days as outlined in the Idaho Constitution.
Otter, along with other top elected officials, countered he was just following a 1978 high court ruling that said the veto deadline only kicks after it lands on his desk. The lawsuit originally singled out Secretary of State Lawerence Denney because he verified the governor’s veto. Otter was later named in the challenge at the Republican governor’s request because he argued that it was his veto that sparked the lawsuit.
However, the justices disagreed with Otter. Nestled inside their 21-page ruling, the court overruled the previous 1978 decision — a rare move inside the courts due to a preference to follow prior judicial precedent— because they argued the Constitution clearly states the deadline starts when the Legislature adjourns for the year. That part of the Tuesday’s decision will only apply to future legislative sessions and not the grocery tax repeal case nor any other prior vetoes.
“The (1978 decision) did not interpret the Constitution; it purported to rewrite an unambiguous phrase in order to obtain a desired result,” the justices wrote.
Otter’s spokesman did not respond to request for comment, though Otter is currently hospitalized recovering from back surgery and an infection. Denney’s office also did not return request for comment.
For many Idahoans, Tuesday’s ruling won’t result in changes at the grocery checkout line. They will continue paying the tax and the state won’t be at risk of losing the tax revenue, which helps pay for public schools and transportation projects. Instead, it’s the Idaho Legislature that will face dramatic changes when handling bills at the end of each session.
That’s because up until now, the Idaho Legislature has routinely adjourned before legislative leaders have handed over all of their bills passed during the session to the governor’s desk.
The Idaho Supreme Court now deems that practice as illegal. Instead, the court says the Idaho Legislature must present all bills to the governor before it can adjourn for the year.
For example, this year, lawmakers went home on March 29. Otter received the grocery tax repeal bill on March 31. Otter then issued his veto on April 11 — 11 days after adjournment.
“If we declared the governor’s veto untimely, we would also have to declare the law he vetoed void because it had not been presented to him before the legislature adjourned sine die,” the justices wrote. “Both the presentment by the legislature and the veto by the governor violated the Constitution.”
Overall, the lawsuit is the latest example of growing dissent inside the Republican-dominated Statehouse.
Otter issued an unprecedented number of vetoes this year, prompting many Republican lawmakers to say they look forward to having a new governor in 2019 when Otter’s term ends. Otter says he is not running for re-election.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers have also said they want more power to overturn vetoes. Under current law, state legislators cannot overturn vetoes after the legislative session has adjourned, but efforts to change the current system have stalled in the Statehouse.