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A legislative giant

peterson MARTIN

I spent 36 legislative sessions wearing a variety of hats. During that time I got to know scores and scores of legislators. But when I look back at them, there is one who stands above the rest. He was Steve Antone, a farmer from Rupert who served in the Idaho House from 1969 until 1996.

He had a number of skills that would prove beneficial in his legislative work. He was intelligent, generally soft spoken, had a good sense of humor and the ability to get along with just about everyone.

For twelve years he chaired the important House Revenue and Taxation Committee. Most tax legislation in Idaho originates in that committee and, as a result, the chairmanship can be a powerful position. The twelve years Steve Antone chaired the committee were perhaps the most challenging from a budgeting and taxation standpoint that Idaho has ever seen.

In 1978, Idaho voters approved the 1% Initiative. Although well intended by its proponents, the initiative was incredibly flawed from a constitutional standpoint and unworkable from an administrative standpoint. Under Antone’s chairmanship, supporters and opponents of the measure, legislators and lobbyists alike, were able to come up with major revisions that provided limitations on the levying of property taxes by local governments, while still meeting various requirements of the state’s constitution and statutes.

I was executive director of the Association of Idaho Cities at this time and approached Antone about the possibility of his committee conducting a field hearing at the Association’s annual convention to receive input for city officials. No legislative committee had ever conducted a hearing outside of Boise. Antone gave it some thought, liked the idea, and took the committee to Coeur d’Alene that summer.

In the early 80s, Idaho’s natural resource based economy collapsed. Low prices for farm commodities, timber and minerals all combined to knock the bottom out of the state’s tax revenues. It was the worst fiscal situation the state had seen since the great depression. The solutions to the state budget problems had to be met with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases.

It fell to Antone and his committee to approve the series of tax increases.

In some instances such as with the sales tax, it was simply a matter of increasing the rate. In other instances, such as with the insurance premium tax, it involved significantly re-writing portions of the law to broaden out the application of the tax. It is also important to recognize that Antone, a moderate, had some of the most conservative members of the House on his committee. For three legislative sessions Antone and his colleagues wrestled with the problems of the recession and, in the end, while some essential services were reduced, none were eliminated and the state went on to both recover and economically prosper for a couple of decades.

I was state budget director at that time and in that role was the Governor’s chief tax advisor. I was in the midst of that activity and can attest that without Antone’s leadership, Idaho could have ended up being a far different place.

Antone’s legislative district included the cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley. While the legislature had made it clear that it did not support local option taxation, Antone felt that Ketchum and Sun Valley were a special case because much of the burden for local services was being brought about by tourists who didn’t pay local taxes. He embarked on an effort to provide for a special local option tax for resort cities. Resort cities being cities where tourism constituted the major portion of their economy.

The local option sales taxes now in place in 13 Idaho cities and Nez Perce county are all a result of Antone’s early success with the tax for Ketchum and Sun Valley.

Although these were all difficult situations, Antone’s leadership style made the difference in each case. Always level headed, he also had a good sense of humor that helped get things done. On one occasion four members of his committee were absent, which helped a bill to pass that might not have otherwise. After the vote, Antone announced that the vote had been a four gone conclusion.

Steve Antone was perhaps the most effective committee chair the Legislature has ever seen and certainly one of our all-time finest legislators. He was a true Idaho giant.

Marty Peterson grew up in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley. He is retired and lives in Boise.

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