BOISE — Gov. Brad Little on Monday described 2020 like a damaging and deadly tornado, but said Idaho is strong heading into the new year with strong finances and a coronavirus vaccine now available.
The Republican governor’s state of the state speech is considered the kickoff to the legislative session and is usually heavy on budget matters. He usually gives the speech to a joint session in the House of Representatives attended by all 35 senators and 70 representatives, as well as members of the Idaho Supreme Court and other statewide elected office holders.
But his speech Monday was delivered remotely to avoid spreading the virus.
He spent much of it talking about the coronavirus that has killed more than 1,500 residents and asked for a moment of silence for those who died. He also championed front-line health care workers and the challenges they’ve faced.
He also mentioned last week’s siege of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump insurrectionists. Little said residents should not be intimidated by those who would destroy the country. He said Idaho residents should choose compassion over conflict, listening over lecturing and humanity over hostility. About 64 percent of Idaho voters cast ballots for Trump in November.
“These choices start with each of us individually, in our hearts,” Little said. “It is a concept that aligns perfectly with the fiercely independent and self-reliant spirit of the people of Idaho.”
Little transitioned to looking forward with budget matters about halfway through the speech, announcing his “Building Idaho’s Future” plan.
Idaho officials expected the state’s finances to take a huge hit due to the coronavirus. But the state received $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus rescue money, and many residents received up to $1,200. That money, combined with an influx of new residents, has given the state a budget surplus of more than $600 million.
Little said his budget that he’s presenting to lawmakers proposes a $450 million tax cut, that he said would be the largest ever tax cut in Idaho. He didn’t name specific tax cuts, saying that will have to be worked out with lawmakers.
He also said he wants to spend $126 million on state and and local highway infrastructure, plus another $80 million in new, ongoing transportation funding.
“A dependable transportation system is fundamental to commerce,” Little declared.
Little attributed Idaho’s financial strength to conservative principles in governing and cuts to regulations carried out over the last several years.
Overall, Little’s budget is a 3.8 percent increase over last year.
“My budget leaves a prudent surplus, bolsters rainy-day funds, and reflects my continued priority on education, including our valuable teachers,” he said.
His budget recommends $250 million to fully implement a plan increasing pay for teachers.
Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, was encouraged by Little’s commitment to restoring education cuts, especially the plan to fully invest in the teachers’ salary ladder. Ruchti also appreciated Little’s announcement of a 2.6 percent restoration of funds to higher education budgets.
“Education wise I saw a lot of good,” Ruchti said.
Ruchti lauded Little for offering a plan to ensure Idaho’s Medicaid expansion is protected, involving cost sharing between the state and its counties.
Ruchti is skeptical, however, about the approximately $455 million in proposed tax cuts, including $160 million in permanent tax cuts. He acknowledged the state had a large budget surplus this year, but Ruchti worries the state is now facing many pressing needs, including a $242 million transportation funding shortfall.
The Idaho State Journal contributed to this report.