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Idaho governor touts big education spending boost, tax cuts


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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Gov. Brad Little on Monday proposed an 11% budget increase for public schools, a record $300 million boost over last year’s budget amount that was dedicated to schools.

The Republican governor in his State of the State address also promoted a $350 million one-time income tax rebate and an ongoing income tax cut expected to reduce taxes for people and businesses by $251 million in its first year. It lowers the top income tax rate from 6.5% to 6%.

Idaho has a $1.9 billion budget surplus that lawmakers will divide up when they set the state’s budget over the next several months. Little said his budget prudently handles the surplus without setting up the state for money problems in future years.

The House and Senate gaveled into session shortly before Little’s speech and he delivered it in person from the House chamber after last year delivering his address remotely because of COVID-19 concerns.

“Idaho’s economy is stronger than ever before,” Little declared to the packed chamber of representatives, senators, top state elected officials, members of the Idaho Supreme Court and spectators in the gallery. All of the justices wore masks, but most lawmakers did not.

Little said the budget surplus gave the state had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for what he called a “Leading Idaho” plan he described as “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.”

The plan pays off state building debt, starts the state on a path to pay all known deferred infrastructure maintenance over the next 10 years and bolsters the state’s rainy day funds to more than $1 billion.

Little’s budget also includes $12 million to protect elections from cyber threats and $50 million to boost Idaho State Police efforts.

Idaho ranks at or near the bottom in what it spends on K-12 students and has one of the nation’s worst graduation rates and Little’s budget looks to move the needle on that.

“We want our Idaho students to receive a strong foundation of learning now so they can stay here and make our state strong for future generations,” Little said.

Little’s budget includes $47 million in ongoing funding for literacy programs that could be used by local officials to pay for full-day kindergarten.

He also announced what he called Empowering Parents grants totaling $50 million for computers, tutoring, internet connectivity and other needs that became apparent during the coronavirus pandemic as students learn remotely.

“The Empowering Parents grants put families in control of their child’s education, as it should be,” Little said.

He also announced $50 million to improve behavioral healthcare across Idaho, noting a school shooting by a 12-year-old girl in eastern Idaho and introducing to lawmakers during his speech the teacher who disarmed the girl. Two other students and a custodian were injured in the May 6 attack.

For higher education, Little’s budget contains a 7.1% funding increase for the state’s universities and a 4.8% increase for community colleges.

Little’s proposed budget also includes $850 million in a mix of state and federal money to improve the quality and quantity of water throughout the state.

That money will be used for raising the height of the Anderson Ranch Dam near Boise, improving drinking and wastewater systems mainly in rural communities, making improvements to state parks and bolstering the state’s fire suppression funds with $150 million as the state in recent years has had to deal with numerous wildfires.

Little faces a primary challenge in May, and his speech included several references to President Joe Biden, in which he twice used the term “Bidenflation,” a Republican phrase accusing President Joe Biden of boosting inflation.

Little’s main challenger is Republican Lt. Gov. Janice McGheachin, and the two shook hands before and after Little’s speech. She has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

Little’s budget also includes $75 million to improve the quality of care in state veterans homes.
The budget includes $200 million in ongoing funding for maintenance needs locally and statewide. Little also proposed $200 million in one-time funding to fix about a third of a backlog of work on deficient bridges.

Another $225 million in federal money would be used over the next five years to upgrade broadband infrastructure to help with remote work, telehealth and distance learning.