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Little’s agenda: more funding for schools, infrastructure, tax cuts

Brad Little addresses Idaho lawmakers
Idaho Public Telivision
Brad Little addresses Idaho lawmakers

Tax cuts and rebates, investments in infrastructure repair and education programs top Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s budget agenda in 2022.

Little’s nine-page State of the State speech, delivered Monday at the capitol in Boise, declared Idaho’s economy “stronger than ever before.” Reports from state officials say the $1.9 billion surplus is primarily the result of money left over from last year’s surplus, plus better-than-expected tax revenues. Not included in the surplus are millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds.

General fund spending for public education in Idaho would increase by $300 million, according to Little’s proposal. The governor’s office says the 11 percent boost is the largest single increase for education funding in state history.

Education proposals include $47 million in new spending for childhood literacy programs, an area Little called “my top priority.” He also proposed $50 million for a grant program aimed at helping parents pay for educational expenses, such as computers, tutoring and internet service. More than $200 million is tagged for public school educators’ salaries and health insurance premia.

“If approved by the Legislature, this new funding would begin to move Idaho away from the horrifying distinction of ranking below every other state, and the District of Columbia, in per student spending,” Idaho Education Association President Layne McInelly said in a statement.

Little’s plan also calls for an increase in higher education spending. That plank of the budget request could face strong headwinds in the legislature, where in recent years lawmakers have taken out frustration over college and university diversity and inclusion programs by cutting state appropriations.

Infrastructure would also get a lift under Little’s spending plan. Much of that is in the form of one-time spending: $200 million for bridges, a quarter of a billion dollars for deferred maintenance at state buildings, and $176 million to pay off state building debt. Little estimates the money for bridges will address one-third of the state’s current backlog of bridges in need of repair.

“We cannot continue our record economic trajectory if our logging trucks can’t get across old bridges or we can’t get our farm products to market,” Little said.

Little proposed an even bigger sum -- $350 million – for rapid tax rebates, plus another quarter-billion to cover the losses of a proposed income tax cut. Little wants rates for individuals and businesses lowered from 6.5 percent to six percent. The governor’s office says income, property and unemployment insurance taxes in the state have been lowered by a billion dollars since Little took office in 2019.

One billion dollars would be put into Idaho’s “rainy day fund,” a reserve fund that is usually tapped only when state coffers run short during lean years.

Little referenced polarized views of policing in making his request to raise the Idaho State Police’s (ISP) budget by $60 million.

“While others seek to defund the police, Idaho defends the police,” Little said. “Idaho truly is a state that ‘backs the blue.’”

His public safety request includes money for investigating drug crimes, reducing recidivism, and a new forensic science laboratory. Little also wants to expand the portion of ISP that’s responsible for protecting the state capitol building in Boise. Several lawmakers have expressed concerns about their own safety in the volatile environment of current political activism.

Housing was mentioned only once in Little’s remarks, as part of a longer list of possible investments in his budget agenda. Housing was not included in a more detailed spending breakdown provided by the governor’s office. Little did not say whether he would advocate putting money into the state’s housing trust fund. The fund was created thirty years ago, but has been empty for its entire existence.

While mentioning that Idaho’s election systems were untainted in 2020, Little also proposed spending $12 million to establish a cyber-defense fund intended to help the state prepare for internet-based attacks from “bad actors in China, Russia and elsewhere.” He is doing so, he said, to “elevate Idahoans’ trust in their elections.”

Little also asked for $500,000 to pay for audits to “enhance transparency and confidence” in the state’s election processes. He did not specify what the audits would entail or how they would boost confidence in elections.

Though the annual address is ostensibly a summary of the governor’s budget priorities, Little used portions of the speech to criticize President Joe Biden. Little blamed him for inflation, political divisiveness, and problems at the U.S.-Mexico border. Little also criticized federal vaccination requirements and touted his record of fighting the mandates and refusal to implement other coronavirus mitigation measures.

The governor also aired broader criticism of the federal government in general. Checking off popular Republican talking points about taxes, regulations and spending, Little described a qualitative difference between his perception of federal attitudes and Idaho’s anti-regulation, low-tax approach.

Little’s 2022 State of the State kicks off an election year in which it is widely expected – but has not been confirmed – he will run for another term as Idaho’s governor. Little hinted at a re-election bid in a meeting with reporters Friday, and recent campaign finance disclosures show Little has raised more money so far than any of his challengers.

All of the budget requests Little made Monday are subject to the approval of state legislators. That process begins with the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which meets beginning Tuesday, January 11.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.