Idaho Gov. Brad Little made a swing through Idaho Falls last week, taking time to stop at College of Eastern Idaho before visiting with the Post Register’s editorial board at our office.
Little took time to talk about his ambitious Idaho First plan with detailed highlights of his Fiscal Year 2023-24 budget.
Topping his list were record education investments, with recommendations including targeting starting teacher pay to a top 10 level nationally at $47,477, up from No. 41 nationally when he took office; strengthening pay for all teachers with a $6,359 raise; closing the salary gap for classified staff with more than $97 million to put schools in position to hire critical support staff; improving health insurance benefits; and investing in K-12 school facility security.
The increased teacher pay has brought the most criticism from Little’s conservative critics.
It sets aside $80 million to improve workforce education opportunities, geared toward building a skilled workforce for Idaho businesses.
The plan would make investments in critical infrastructure, with Little noting that it would not involve raising taxes or fees, addressing the deferred maintenance backlog for state and local roads with an emphasis on transportation safety — improving one-third of deficient local bridges, improving airports around the state.
His budget highlights note that the governor and the Legislature provided $2.7 billion in relief on income taxes, property taxes, and an expanded grocery tax credit during the past four years with plans to do even more in that direction by fully implementing the flat tax passed during the 2022 special session and setting aside an additional $120 million of state funding for ongoing tax relief directed to local government property tax mitigation.
It addresses public safety in part through enhanced recruitment of state law enforcement officials with a 10% salary adjustment, prioritizing officer safety, and providing $1.6 million to the Idaho State Police to develop a statewide drug interdiction team to focus on the fentanyl crisis.
His plan builds off a commitment to invest in agriculture and natural resources, including providing $150 million for investments in state water infrastructure to help ensure a stable water supply, strengthening the state’s energy infrastructure, and providing $12 million in grants to help farmers, ranchers, dairies and confined animal feeding operations with environmental improvement programs.
It addresses health and human services needs with an emphasis on expanding behavioral health services to Medicaid beneficiaries, adding a 26-bed mental health facility to care for patients determined to be dangerously mentally ill, providing federal funding to ensure access to ambulance services and emergency medical care remains viable, and bolstering evidence-based child abuse and neglect prevention programs.
In one area conservatives should applaud, the plan prepares the state for a predicted recession by paying off all callable debt in the transportation bond program, making a second down payment on state building deferred maintenance to clear out half of that backlog, and bolstering rainy-day funds to prepare for future economic downturns.
Little’s budget expects to leave a surplus of more than $200 million in both budgeted years while maintaining a structurally balanced budget over a five-year period.
Critics will say that the budget means massive spending, but there is a lot to catch up on in deferred maintenance alone. There are things that need to be done now while the money is available. Instead of looking at it as excess spending, try looking at it as a long-term investment.
The governor has a good, solid, focused plan — with an emphasis on being focused — and we hope the Legislature will take it seriously.
Still, as we pointed out last week after Little’s State of the State address, he has his share of critics coming from the conservative side, even being called the equivalent of a progressive liberal governor.
In his visit with the editorial board, he didn’t let that criticism bother him.
“It sells soap and it sells clicks on social media,” he said. “All I can do is keep my head down, keep working, keep increasing the quality of life, keep lowering taxes, keep the state solvent, keep creating opportunity and new jobs. They’re not critical of substance. They’re critical about who said they were going to vote for me or affiliation.”
Little said the criticism from Idaho conservatives surprises fellow governors when he meets with them.
“The response I get is, ‘I thought somebody said you were a liberal,’ and I say, ‘Well that isn’t going to fly.’
“I frankly don’t lose any sleep over it. I’ve been a Republican longer than, I’m almost certain, every one of those people. I’m fine. I just keep my head down and let my record stand on its own.”