Gov. Brad Little shakes hands with Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, after Little delivered the State of the State address on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. (Clark Corbin/Idaho Capitol Sun)
Idaho Gov. Brad Little began the 2022 legislative session Monday afternoon by calling for the largest investment in education in state history.
Little outlined his education, tax cut, transportation and infrastructure proposals during the annual State of the State address, which Little delivered in-person to a joint session of the Idaho House of Representatives and Idaho Senate.
Little struck an optimistic tone in the nearly 29-minute speech. The state’s record budget surplus — now pegged at $1.9 billion — represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, his aides said.
“Idaho’s economy is stronger than ever before,” Little said in his speech.
“I have a plan for Idaho – a path to give back our record budget surplus to Idahoans through continued tax relief and strategic investments where they make the biggest difference in their daily lives,” Little added.
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Little calls for expanding early literacy effort
In his speech and in his budget proposal, Little called for increasing state general fund spending for K-12 education by $300 million above the current spending levels, an increase of 11%. Little’s staff said the $300 million represents the largest dollar increase in state history.
A big chunk of Little’s education proposal calls for increasing funding for his kindergarten through third grade literacy initiative by $47 million, bringing total funding for the initiative to about $73 million. That is enough to provide full-day kindergarten to meet the anticipated demand of 80% of Idaho families that Little’s staff believes would be interested in taking advantage of expanded kindergarten.
“Literacy has been my top priority because it just makes sense. Our investments in education later on will have more impact if we can work with families to get more students to read proficiently early on,” Little said in his speech.
Local school districts can use that money for all-day kindergarten, but the literacy program includes flexibility at the local level, so school leaders could also choose to invest their share of the money in a summer reading or a different initiative, if they choose.
“I cannot think of a more back to basics investment that will make a meaningful difference in students’ lives today and for years to come,” Little said.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra watched the speech from the House chambers and said she was thrilled with Little’s education budget proposals.
“It is a great day for education in Idaho. I mean, wow!” Ybarra said in an interview with the Idaho Capital Sun. “Any time there is more money for education, I am going to be super happy about that, super excited. To have (Little) as a teammate asking the Legislature for money and programs for kids, we are in great shape.”
“I’m really, really happy that education is once again a priority for everybody,” Ybarra added.
What does Little’s budget proposal look like?
Overall, Little calls for increasing state general fund spending by 8.1%, compared to 2022. For 2023, state general fund spending would total more than $4.5 billion. Highlights from Little’s State of the State and budget proposals include:
- $1.1 billion to increase the balance of Idaho’s rainy day savings accounts.
- $350 million in income tax rebates to Idaho taxpayers in 2022.
- $250 million to reduce the highest income tax bracket for individuals and corporations from 6.5% to 6%.
- $105 million to increase the state’s contribution to public school teachers’ health insurance premiums.
- $104 million to increase pay for Idaho public school teachers through the state’s career ladder salary program, representing a 10% increase in funding the state sends out to school districts for teacher pay.
- A 7.1% proposed increase for Idaho’s public universities and a 4.8% increase for Idaho’s community colleges.
- A 5% change in employee compensation salary increase for state employees, including Idaho State Police and corrections workers.
- Leaving a $214 million ending balance at the end of the fiscal year, June 30, 2023.
As he suggested Friday during a meeting with reporters, Little also called for increasing funding for the Idaho State Police protecting the Idaho State Capitol. Little called on increasing Idaho State Police’s Capitol Protective Services Unit Budget by $2.8 million, enough for 13 new full-time positions.
Little also outlined plans for the state’s $1.9 billion surplus through a series of mostly one-time investments and transfers in the current 2022 budget. His proposals included $200 million in one-time investments for bridges, $250 million in one-time money to pay off deferred state building maintenance, $175.8 million to pay off state building debt through the Department of Administration bond payment program and $150 million to battle wildfires. Little’s staff said a typical fire season budget is $30 million. But following last year’s historic fire season, the fire suppression fund was in the red. Little’s $150 million proposal would bring the fund out of the red and “pre-pay” for five average fire seasons.
In a response to Little’s speech, Democratic legislative leaders said they were happy to see Little’s emphasis on education, but they said they were disappointed in his income tax proposal.
“We should be laser focused on cutting property taxes, not cutting income taxes for those at the top,” House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said in a Monday afternoon press conference.
Rubel would have liked to see Little increase funding for literacy and separately and specifically provide statewide funding for all-day kindergarten. She suggested Little had an opportunity to solidify his legacy by being the governor he oversaw Idaho’s expansion to full-day kindergarten.
Rubel and Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said Democrats would focus on education initiatives, providing relief on housing costs and property taxes and transportation and infrastructure investments.
“These problems could largely be fixed this year with the funds we have available,” Rubel said. “Democrats will be doing all we can to work across the aisle to make that happen.”
Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, praised Little’s speech and proposals during a GOP press conference after the speech.
Bedke hinted there will be negotiations over several proposals, but he appeared supportive and open to many of the governor’s ideas.
“I did not leave that speech with a list of things I did not like,” Bedke told reporters.
Bedke made a little news himself, saying Republicans could unveil their major tax cut proposal early this session.
“We talked about introducing the tax cut bill this week and getting the ball rolling on that,” Bedke said.
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Despite surplus, Little calls for conservative spending plan
Despite the record surplus and optimism over Idaho’s economy, Little’s aides said several national factors caused him to focus on a prudent, conservative spending plan. Increased inflation, the influx of federal stimulus money and tight labor markets all gave Little pause, his aides told reporters in a briefing before the speech.
Little made the point again in the speech itself.
“We must be even more vigilant in perceived times of plenty to make decisions that are prudent and will withstand the test of time,” Little said. “We did not spend our way to a surplus, and budget surpluses must never become an excuse for wasteful spending.”
Little’s speech and budget proposal represent a starting point for policy negotiations during the 2022 session. Legislators will spend the next roughly 75 days setting the state budget and debating a series of bills and proposals. To accomplish proposals from the priorities he outlined, Little will need to work with the Legislature to secure the funding and pass laws.
“By now, you know my goal – for Idaho to be the place where we all can have the opportunity to thrive, where our children and grandchildren choose to stay, and for the ones who have left to choose to return,” Little said in the speech.
After the speech, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said he hopes the Legislature can adjourn for the year by March 25. This year is an election year, with the primary elections scheduled for May 17. Moyle said the Idaho House may even be able to adjourn a week before March 25 if the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee can move the state budget along.
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