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Gov. Little outlines Idaho’s ‘incredible trajectory,’ education plans in State of the State


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BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — When it comes to the state budget, newly sworn-in Gov. Brad Little has a No. 1 priority for the 2019 legislative session: education.

Little, who delivered his inaugural State of the State and budget address Monday afternoon at the Capitol, dedicated much of his speech before Idaho officials to outline new efforts when it comes to educating the Gem State’s children.

As the fifth year of a five-year education, plan concludes, Little is creating “Our Kids, Idaho’s Future,” an initiative and task force to help craft the next long-term plan.

“This initiative will provide Idaho’s next five-year blueprint for education investment and reform,” he said.

Little’s education spending proposals include:

  • $48 million to fully fund the final year of the five-year funding program to increase teacher pay via a career ladder.
  • $13.2 million for literacy proficiency, double the current budget. The money would go directly to schools to increase reading proficiency and help ensure that students are reading at grade level by the time they complete the third grade.
  • $11.2 million to increase starting teacher pay to $40,000.
  • $7 million for higher-education opportunity scholarships. Last year, 1,780 applicants were eligible for the scholarship but did not receive it because of a lack of funding.
  • $255,600 via a federal grant to assess needs and determine a plan to address school safety.

In response to the State of the State address, Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said in a press release that Democrats would offer any help the governor needs to get results when it comes to education, especially in rural areas.

“We must pay our public school teachers a competitive wage, so we don’t lose them to bordering states,” she said in the release. “That starts with funding the final year of the career ladder and finding ways to invest in our veteran educators who play a vital role in Idaho’s future success.”

Medicaid expansion plans

In other state business, Little says he will honor his pledge to implement a Medicaid expansion initiative more than 60 percent of voters approved on Nov. 6.

“I intend to work with you to implement Medicaid expansion using an Idaho approach,” he said.

House Minority Leader Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, said in a press release that implementing Medicaid expansion is the Democrats’ No. 1 priority.

“Governor Little likes to talk about the ‘lightest hand of government’ – the Medicaid expansion voters approved IS the most efficient and effective way to deliver health care to thousands of Idahoans,” he said in the release. “Adding burdensome, expensive, heavy-handed bureaucracies is not what the people voted for and will cause nothing but problems for too many people.”

Little said that once people get coverage via Medicaid, he wants to create “pathways” for them to “move off Medicaid and onto private coverage.”

Idaho’s economy could help provide people with work, higher-paying jobs and opportunities for private insurance, he said.

“Idahoans’ incomes are the fastest growing in America,” Little said. “We have the highest number of people employed in the state’s history.”

Little also noted that too many people are being “priced out of health insurance coverage.”

“In the past two years, the number of uninsured Idahoans increased by 125,000 – almost double the gap population,” he said. “As Idaho continues to enjoy the fastest-growing economy in he nation, the number of insured Idahoans should be increasing, not decreasing.”

To remedy this, Little said he wants to “pursue strategies that contain health care costs,” including continuing the state-run health insurance exchange.

Cautious spending

Little pitched a conservative budget.

Overall, his 2019-20 budget proposal is $3.65 billion, a 6.7 percent increase over this year’s budget. Of that, $2.3 billion, or 63 percent, is proposed to go to education.

Not wanting to “spend money until it is in the bank,” Little said he has put together a budget that leaves a “larger than normal” ending balance, meaning he has not planned on spending every projected revenue dollar. For 2019, he has a proposed $97.6 million ending balance, and for 2020, he has a $172.6 million ending balance.

Little said his reason for that is two-fold. He wants the state’s budget to grow slower than the rate of the state’s forecasted economic growth. Even though the state is growing rapidly, he does not want to bank on that new money coming in and spend it before it arrives. If projected revenues come in less than expected, this will provide a buffer.

Secondly, “it lays the groundwork for repealing the grocery tax,” which Little wants to do in 2021.

Other plans

Little said he has been frustrated by what he dubbed “major shortcomings” when it comes to customer service issues that have plagued Idaho’s Division of Motor Vehicles over the past year. He said he has tasked the new Department of Administration to do a review of the processes for state purchasing and contracts.

“Idahoans deserve an action plan for better results from government,” he said.

Little said he also hopes to expand the St. Anthony Work Camp in eastern Idaho and open a community re-entry facility in northern Idaho to address the Gem State’s growing prison population. That initiative will add 220 beds for Idaho’s inmates and help give prisoners new skills to transition back to everyday life, he said.

Little also introduced a new plan to help more Idahoans become first-time homeowners by creating an option for residents to start a First-Time Home Buyer Savings Account.

“This account will encourage young families to set aside part of their pretax income to make a down payment on their first home,” he said.

Little also outlined the three executive orders he plans to issue.

The first two will help reduce regulatory burdens by putting in place sunrise and sunset processes for future occupational licensing laws requiring all state agencies to revoke two regulations for every new one they want to implement, forcing agencies to overhaul regulations and remove any outdated and unnecessary rules.

The third executive order would formalize the state’s plan to address the substance abuse, including opioids. He wants to spend $4.2 million developing a system to prevent, monitor and treat opioid-related addiction.

Democrats respond

Each year, following the governor’s annual speech, Idaho’s minority party holds a press conference, typically lamenting how the governor’s plan gives short shrift to their party’s priorities.

This year, though, Idaho’s Democratic leadership offered a much different tone from recent years.

“With Gov. Little comes an opportunity for a fresh start that Idaho needs,” Stennett said. “He has the ability to correct past mistakes and ensure a better quality of life for Idahoans.”

She was pleased by the content of Little’s speech and his budget proposal, she said.

“I did my happy dance because much of what he said is something that we have been as Democrats talking about and pushing for and trying to get passed for more than 10 years,” she said.

Medicaid expansion, education, outdoor recreation as a sustainable industry, raising teacher and state employee pay and focusing on reading initiatives?

“Those are things that have been our bailiwick for a very long time,” Erpelding said.

This article was originally published by the Idaho Statesman. It is used here with permission.