Idaho Governor Brad Little Makes Education, Prisons A Priority In First State Of State Speech

Jan 7, 2019

Newly inaugurated Governor Brad Little says education will be a keystone of his administration.

In his State of the State address Monday, the Republican outlined his vision for recruiting teachers by proposing an increase to the starting salary of educators to $40,000. Little says he’ll ask lawmakers to double literacy program funding, giving districts the discretion to invest in reading coaches, full-day kindergarten or other interventions.

Overall, the new governor proposes more than $100 million in new money going toward education out of a $3.89 billion budget.

Idaho has one of the lowest rates of higher education attainment and Little’s approach includes expanding career technical opportunities for students. 

“In my work on economic development,” says Little in his speech before the Idaho Legislature, “I know there’s a strong correlation between our education system and the attractiveness of our state to entrepreneurs and businesses. Most importantly, a strong education system helps ensure we keep our best and brightest here in Idaho.”

Little proposes that $13.2 million be set aside for boosting the state’s literacy proficiency, which schools can use in a number of ways — including funding full-day kindergarten. Full-day kindergarten is not mandated by the Idaho legislature.

That money cannot go toward pre-k education without a change in state law. The governor has not proposed a bill making it legal so far.

“It’s a conversation we need to have,” says Alex Adams, Administrator of the Division of Financial Management.

No general fund money will go toward paying for Idaho’s Medicaid expansion. About half of the roughly $20 million needed will come from the Millennium Fund, which pays underage smoking deterrent programs and initiatives to help drop tobacco use rates across the state. The rest of the money is expected to come from savings in the budget that have historically paid for health coverage of those previously not covered under Medicaid.

The new governor also wants to increase the number of beds in Idaho prisons. The state prison system has been stretched to capacity, and some inmates have been sent to Texas because of overcrowding. Little says the solution is to open a 120-bed community reentry center in northern Idaho, and expand the capacity of the St. Anthony Work Camp by 100 beds in eastern Idaho. 

“In addition to providing timely relief to Idaho’s overcrowded prisons, these combined 220 beds focus specifically on helping those in custody acquire critical skills to successfully transition back into society after release.” 

That’s still not enough space to return all of the 750 inmates the state has sent out of state. But Little calls it’s a “stop gap” solution.

“I am not opposed to send people out of state. I’m really opposed to what we’ve done, which is send the people out of state that are the ones making the most progress on mainstreaming them back into society,” he says. “That is something we’ve got to fix.”

Not included in the governor’s budget proposal is a $500 million prison that was proposed by the state Board of Correction last year. The facility would hold more than 1,500 inmates.

The governor says building one or two new mental health facilities across the state could help drive down the need for another prison, too.

But House Speaker Scott Bedke (R-Oakley) says Idaho should sock away a chunk of any surplus revenue for a prison.

“I think there is a new prison in Idaho’s future and we might as well start saving up for that day,” Bedke says.

New probation and parole officers factor into Little’s budget as well, totalling 17 new positions. 

These programs together are a 3.6 percent increase in the corrections budget over the current year.

Revenue projections for the next fiscal year are down when it comes to personal income tax, something state officials say will correct itself over time after residents recalibrate their withholdings.

To compensate for that, Governor Little proposes leaving millions of dollars in the tank to ride out any uncertainty that might pop up over the coming year.

“We do not spend money until it’s in the bank,” says Alex Adams, Administrator of the Division of Financial Management.

Part of that uncertainty puts on hold a campaign promise Little made to repeal Idaho’s sales tax on groceries — at least for now. He says he plans to tackle that issue next year.

State employees could also receive a 3 percent pay bump should Idaho legislators sign off on it.

Democrats, who occupy 20 percent of the seats in both the House and Senate, say they look forward to working with Little. Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett (D-Ketchum) said, "I did a little happy dance," when asked about the tone of the address. 

Still, Stennett was surprised Little didn't make infrastructure a more central focus, calling him "the expert."

House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding (D-Boise) said the new governor "missed an opportunity" to be like former Gov. Phil Batt (R) in supporting human rights causes connected to the LGBTQ and migrant communities.

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