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Tuesday, October 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Idaho governor’s budget boosts money for education, prisons

Idaho Gov. Brad Little delivers his State of the State address inside the house chambers at the state Capitol building, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020 in Boise, Idaho. (Otto Kitsinger / AP)
Idaho Gov. Brad Little delivers his State of the State address inside the house chambers at the state Capitol building, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020 in Boise, Idaho. (Otto Kitsinger / AP)
By Keith Ridler Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho – Idaho Gov. Brad Little said Monday that education funding will be his top priority for the state budget, continuing a theme from his just-completed first year in office.

The 65-year-old Republican governor delivered his second State of the State address to lawmakers on Monday in what is considered the kickoff to the legislative session.

“I am committed to working with you to invest in education, continue reducing regulatory burdens, and increase all Idahoans’ prosperity and quality of life,” Little declared.

Little’s budget limits general fund spending growth to 3.75 percent, a reduction from recent years. His budget leaves a surplus of $60 million and increases the state’s rainy-day funds by $102 million as protection against a possible economic slowdown.

My budget “cuts spending, leaves a surplus, and bolsters our rainy-day funds,” Little said. “It focuses on conservative growth and transparent budgeting.”

The state spends about half of its budget on K-12 education, or about $2 billion annually. Little’s budget increases that by about 4%. In particular, Little is keen on increasing the reading ability of young students.

“My budget keeps the foot on the gas and makes our historic investment in literacy ongoing,“ he said.

He is also recommending $7.7 million for the second year of funding to increase starting teacher pay to $40,000. Another $30 million will be aimed at increasing pay for experienced teachers. Performance criteria will ensure accountability, he said.

Little’s budget includes paying $41 million for Medicaid expansion, a volatile issue among lawmakers after 61% of voters backed an initiative in 2018 after lawmakers failed to act for years. Money would come from various state agencies and an existing program that provides money for indigent people who get sick but can’t pay their medical bills.

Little is also proposing $100 million for improving the state’s highway system.

He has budgeted a 12% increase in prison funding to make room for more prisoners, including sending 500 offenders to prisons out of state. Of the state’s larger agencies, it’s among the largest budget increases.

Little has also committed about $35 million to reduce the grocery sales tax burden. It’s not yet clear how that will work out with lawmakers. Possibilities include an increase in how much residents can deduct on their taxes to reducing or eliminating the sales tax itself.

Little reflected on his first year in office. He noted he cut or simplified 75% of Idaho’s administrative rules adding up to 30,000 restrictions and about 1,800 pages of regulations. The rules include such things as protecting consumers, homeowners, the environment and schoolchildren.

“It means small businesses can now easily understand the regulations they are required to follow,” he said. “When we reduce regulatory friction, good jobs follow.”

Little had sweeping authority to eliminate regulations without public or lawmaker oversight after lawmakers in the House and Senate failed to pass legislation involving the state’s obscure administrative rules process.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate generally found the governor’s speech to their liking but with various concerns.

“We thought that today’s State of the State was upbeat and positive, and I thought it was very well received,” said Republican Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, noting it has been since 2014 that a budget limited general fund spending growth to 3.75%.

Among the concerns mentioned by Bedke as well as Democrats was property tax relief, which appears to be a primary topic for both parties. Property taxes in some areas have been rising rapidly as a result of Idaho’s fast growth.

“Idaho property tax payers are deeply concerned about being priced out of their homes,“ Democratic Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett said.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate now begin work on this year’s legislative session that’s expected to last about three months.

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