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New Idaho governor says education will be his top priority

Jan. 7, 2019 Updated Tue., Jan. 8, 2019 at 12:03 a.m.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little greets legislators after delivering his State of the State address inside the house chambers at the state Capitol building, Monday, Jan. 7, 2019 in Boise, Idaho. (Otto Kitsinger / Associated Press)
Idaho Gov. Brad Little greets legislators after delivering his State of the State address inside the house chambers at the state Capitol building, Monday, Jan. 7, 2019 in Boise, Idaho. (Otto Kitsinger / Associated Press)
By Keith Ridler Associated Press

BOISE – Idaho Gov. Brad Little said Monday his top priority for the state budget is education, and he plans to create a new cabinet of educators and parents to advise him.

The 64-year-old Republican kept to an upbeat theme in his first State of the State address to lawmakers in what is considered the official kickoff to the legislative session.

“Our state is on an incredible trajectory,” he said. “With your help, I intend to lead us to the next level.”

Little served as lieutenant governor the last 10 years under former Gov. Butch Otter, who retired after 12 years as governor. Little thanked Otter and called on lawmakers to honor his legacy by keeping a balanced budget while investing in the future. About 25 percent of the 105-member Legislator is also new this year.

Little has often said he prefers the lightest possible hand of government and he stuck to that theme during his speech that included ambitious goals and the announcement of two planned executive orders aimed at cutting government red tape.

On education, Little’s budget includes raising starting teacher pay to $40,000. He also plans to double literacy program funding to $26 million and to increase funding for a program that provides scholarships for higher education.

“A strong education system helps ensure we keep our best and brightest here in Idaho,” Little said.

He also wants to expand career technical opportunities, with the goal of having 60 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds earning a degree or professional certificate.

Little reminded lawmakers that 60 percent of voters approved Medicaid expansion. “I intend to work with you to implement Medicaid expansion using an Idaho approach,” he said.

He didn’t say specifically if that meant a work or training requirement, though other Republican leaders have said as much.

Little said he planned to address Idaho’s overcrowded prisons by expanding a work camp in St. Anthony and opening a community re-entry center in northern Idaho. He said that would provide an additional 220 beds to help those in custody acquire skills to return to society rather than returning to jail.

“Former offenders cannot be successful after re-entry and on parole if we don’t have the necessary bed space and programs – such as drug courts – to halt the revolving door,” he said.

Another goal, he said, is eliminating the grocery tax by next year. “As a conservative, I will utilize all other mechanisms to ensure our state remains fiscally sound over the long term,” he said.

Little also addressed a possible budget problem involving tax returns following the federal tax overhaul followed by an Idaho tax cut in March. State officials say that could result in taxes coming in after the Legislature finishes its work, which is anticipated sometime in late March or early April.

Little said he’s confident revenues will match economic growth, but “in true Idaho fashion, we will not spend money until it’s in the bank.”

His first executive order will limit future occupational licensing laws.

“To reduce overall regulatory burdens on our citizens and businesses, I will issue another executive order requiring state agencies to revoke two regulations for every new regulation they want to implement,” he said, drawing loud applause.

Little also talked about an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture called Shared Stewardship that allows state workers to work more closely with federal agencies and private landowners. He said Idaho is leading the way among states in the program to help reduce the severity of wildfires.

He planned to continue a commission that works with the Idaho National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy’s top nuclear research lab and one of the largest employers in Idaho.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate now begin work on this year’s legislative session that’s expected to last to at least late March. Big issues expected to dominate include the voter-approved Medicaid expansion and grappling with education funding, infrastructure and paying for prisons.

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