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Idaho Gov. Brad Little prioritizes education, property tax relief, infrastructure in State of State

Idaho State of the State
Otto Kitsinger
/
Idaho Gov. Brad Little gives his State of the State speech in the House chambers of the State Capitol building on Jan. 9, 2023. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Annual address before Idaho Legislature officially begins 2023 legislative session

In his State of the State address Monday, Idaho Gov. Brad Little called for implementing increases in education funding — particularly for boosting teacher pay and creating new college or workforce training scholarships — and setting aside $120 million to offset property taxes.

Little delivered the 36-minute speech to a joint session of the Idaho Legislature at 1 p.m. Monday at the Idaho State Capitol in Boise.

Little, a Republican from Emmett, was re-elected to a second, four-year term on Nov. 8.

Closely watched and scrutinized by legislators, lobbyists and the public alike, the governor’s annual State of the State address is Idaho’s version of the State of the Union address that the president delivers to Congress.

As he foreshadowed last week, Little forcefully called for implementing the Sept. 1 special session law, House Bill 1. Last year, Little and legislators left the decisions regarding the implementation of the education funding provisions of the special session law to this year. The law directs $330 million from sales tax collections to public school education each year and sets aside another $80 million for in-demand careers.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little calls for increasing starting teacher pay

In his speech and budget proposal, Little set his sights on increasing starting teacher pay in Idaho to the point it would rank in the top 10 nationally ($47,477), increasing pay and benefits for all teachers, making salaries and pay more competitive for classified staff members who work in schools and funding some schools facilities and securities projects.

“When I started this job four years ago, Idaho was 41st in the country for starting teacher pay,” Little said during the State of the State address. “In four short years, we will have catapulted starting teacher pay in Idaho from the bottom 10 to the top 10.”

Little called for increasing state funding for teacher pay by $145 million. That’s enough, Little said, to give a $6,359 raise to all Idaho teachers.

“When we show teachers we support them, we’re showing families their child’s education is our priority,” Little said.

On the career training front, Little proposed directing the $80 million to creating a new, $8,500 “Idaho Launch” scholarship that would be available to graduates of Idaho high schools to put toward an Idaho-based, university, community college, career technical or workforce training program of a student’s choice.

“The Idaho Launch scholarship will be the single largest investment in career technical and workforce education in state history,” Little said.

Little said there is a strong mandate from the people of Idaho to implement the education funding and tax cut provisions of the special session law. Little cited the 79.8% of Idaho voters who voted for a Nov. 8 election advisory question asking whether they supported the increases in education funding and the income tax provisions of the special session law.

“The people’s vote affirming tax relief and our education investments passed in every single county, every single city and every single legislative district,” Little said during his address. “The overwhelming support of our plan means, unmistakably, Idahoans expect us to support our public schools.”

After Little’s speech concluded, new Superintendent of Public Instruction Debbie Critchfield applauded Little’s focus on public education.

“Once again, I see that Gov. Little is demonstrating his commitment to education, which clearly as an elected superintendent that is my priority too,” Critchfield told reporters. “So for him to call it out first amongst a whole list of priorities or, I guess, goals that he has, I loved that he kicked it off that way.”

Critchfield said she has already started having conversations with legislators about finding common ground and building support for education.

Legislative leadership reacts positively to Little’s address

Leadership from both parties in the Idaho Legislature said they liked the priorities laid out in Gov. Brad Little’s State of the State address on Monday, but the Republican and Democratic lawmakers have wide disagreements regarding Medicaid, education funding and social issues that are likely to arise this legislative session.

Speaker of the House Mike Moyle, R-Star, said he hopes the Legislature can work together to find solutions to the issues laid out in Little’s speech, but emphasized that “the devil’s in the details” on proposals related to education and property tax.

“I think most of what he talks about will happen in some fashion,” Moyle said at a press conference following the address. “I’m not sure it will be exactly the way he wants it, but … we need to work together with him to find the solutions. It’s not just going to be a rubber stamp.”

In his address, Little touted Idaho’s school choice options, including public and private education opportunities around the state. Moyle said choice is one issue, while “money following the student” is another.

“There’s going to be a lot of debate this year on the money following the student, and how that debate ends up, I’m not sure,” Moyle said. “I think most of us support money following the students in some form, but again the question is what that form is and what it looks like.”

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said she is optimistic that a bill that would increase the homeowner’s exemption will pass this year, and Moyle said the bill is a “great idea.”

Two parties disagree on status of Medicaid expansion in Idaho

Lawmakers will review the status of Medicaid expansion in Idaho now that five years have passed since voters passed a ballot initiative to expand the program. Moyle said the expansion, which opened the state and federal health care program to a wider range of incomes, has not done what it promised to do, which was partially that it would save the state a substantial sum of money. The Legislature increased the Medicaid budget by 6.6% in 2022.

“I’m glad we’re going to review it,” Moyle said. “I’m hoping the Legislature can come up with some cost-saving measures to keep it from growing too high.”

Rubel said it’s not fair to judge Medicaid based on the last few years, because the COVID-19 pandemic heavily skewed the picture. Not only were costs higher in general because of the illness, but the federal government issued a mandate that kept people enrolled in Medicaid until the public health emergency officially ends.

“It’s really premature right now to overreact and shut down a program that has had tremendous benefits, that has saved our rural hospitals and many lives based on a cost number that is very artificially inflated right now, and in all likelihood doesn’t reflect reality at all,” Rubel said. “I think we should look at this number again in a year or two.”

Democrats said they also want to expand Medicaid coverage for new mothers from the current two months to a full year, which would align with other states and produce better maternal health outcomes, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. A review of 11 maternal deaths in Idaho in 2020 showed eight of the deaths were among women covered by Medicaid, and all of the deaths were deemed preventable.

Little asks Idaho Legislature to set aside funding to reduce local property taxes

Another point of emphasis for Little was housing affordability and property tax rates. In his State of the State address, Little called for setting aside $120 million in state funding to help defray local property tax rates. Little didn’t pitch a specific bill or property tax reduction strategy. Instead, he called for setting aside the money from the state’s general funding and working with legislators this session to come up with specific plans.

“Idahoans want relief from rising property taxes, and we hear them,” Little said.

Idaho continues to experience exploding population growth. In 2022, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated Idaho was the second-fastest growing state in the county. In a meeting with reporters last week, Little and legislative leaders predicted that property taxes and housing affordability would be among the top issues of the session.

“There is no doubt Idaho’s tremendous pace of growth is putting a strain on services at the local level, which increases the potential to drive up your local property taxes,” Little said. “But too often, we are simply shifting the burden across taxpayers when we should be addressing the needs head-on.”

Little proposes $1 billion in infrastructure projects

With the state building toward a projected budget surplus of $1.5 billion, Little called for spending $1 billion in one-time infrastructure projects.

Those projects include:

  • $200 million to improve bridge safety, with a target of improving one-third of Idaho’s deficient bridges.
  • $100 million for what Little called “economically significant” local transportation projects that are beyond the means of local governments.
  • $96.8 million for road safety through turn lanes, traffic signals, widened roads and guardrails.
  • $35 million to improve airports across the state.
  • $10 million for pedestrian and safety projects. 

Little called investing in roads, bridges and infrastructure is a way to facilitate growth and reduce the burden on other units of government.
“That buys us not just property tax relief, but safer roads, less drive time and less congestion,” Little said. “Now I am proposing even more for local bridges and new, ongoing funding for transportation safety and capacity to build on our success.”

Idaho’s 2023 legislative session is officially underway

Monday’s State of the State address highlighted the opening day of the 2023 legislative session. There is no set length for Idaho legislative sessions, but they generally run for about 80 days. During the Nov. 8 general election, Idaho voters approved Senate Joint Resolution 102, an amendment to the Idaho Constitution that allows the Idaho Legislature to call itself back into session at any time. Previously, only the governor was allowed to call a special session of the Idaho Legislature.

The new legislative session opens with a high degree of uncertainty because of all the turnover and leadership changes. This year, 39 of the Idaho Legislature’s 105 members are rookies who have never served in that capacity before. There is also an entirely new House Republican leadership team, led by new House Speaker Mike Moyle, R-Star, and Majority Leader Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett.

The 2023 legislative session will continue Tuesday at the Idaho State Capitol with some of the first committee meetings of the year.

Idaho Capital Sun reporter Kelcie Moseley-Morris contributed to this report.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state.