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Despite coronavirus, Idaho on track for historic budget surplus, governor says


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BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Despite the coronavirus pandemic that left thousands of Idahoans unemployed, the state is on track to have a budget surplus, according to Idaho Gov. Brad Little.

Little held a press conference Friday to discuss the state budget, just days before the Legislature’s Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee plans to meet next week. The Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee is also set to meet next week.

“The once-in-a-century pandemic was not part of our budget forecast for this fiscal year,” Little said. “But despite all of the changes since March, I am happy to tell Idahoans that our state budget and Idaho’s economy are strong. And we are well-positioned to handle the ongoing problem COVID offers our state.”

September revenue figures published Friday came in at $33 million ahead of forecast, according to the state. It marks the third straight month of the new fiscal year where the economy beat projections. Idaho is bringing in 10% more this fiscal year compared to the last fiscal year.

Idaho is on track for a $530 million surplus in the current fiscal year, which is nearly 10 times what was expected prior to the pandemic. If it holds, it will be the largest surplus in state history, Little said.

“We are optimistic, but cautiously optimistic,” Little said.

He did not announce Friday any set plans for the use of that money, and it’s largely a decision left for the Legislature.

Little continued to tout that Idaho is open for business and that every school district is at least partially open for in-person learning.

“Our economy is open and has been for months,” Little said. “Under Stage 4 of our Idaho Rebounds plan, there are no statewide restrictions on businesses and other activities.”

But the virus is still causing problems. Statewide, there were 667 new coronavirus cases on Thursday — that’s confirmed and probable cases combined — which is the third-most in a single day since the start of the pandemic. Three of the four highest daily case totals have occurred this week.

When asked about the recent increases in cases, and whether schools and businesses should remain open, Little said, “Yes.” He said he was concerned about public health, though, and urged people to take precautions.

“But I can’t in any way say that businesses being open and schools being back in place isn’t a good thing,” Little said.

The governor also noted that the state still has about $130 million in CARES Act funding to use as the pandemic continues.

“I’m optimistic that if we collectively continue our efforts to fight COVID-19, we will have enough money in the state budget at the end of the fiscal year to provide tax relief to Idahoans and make much needed investments in education, transportation and water projects,” he said.

He acknowledged that the winter months have the potential to be the “worst in our battle with coronavirus.” Little asked Idahoans to wear a mask and keep their distance from nonhousehold members of the community.

“Please do it because it’s the best way to show love for your neighbor,” he said. “Do it because we want our kids to stay in school. Do it because it’s the right thing do. Our personal and economic well-being depends on it.”