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Idaho Gov. Brad Little Promotes K-12 Education, Budget Cuts In State Of The State Address

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K-12 education remains Gov. Brad Little’s (R) top priority in his proposed budget for fiscal year 2021, with every other facet of state government seeing a combined $57 million cut.

Little wants to inject $30 million into pay raises for Idaho’s most experienced public school teachers. 

Another $7.7 million would go toward increasing starting teacher pay to $40,000 to try to make these positions more competitive with neighboring states like Oregon and Washington.

“[The governor] is keeping his foot on the gas” when it comes to ensuring all children are reading at grade level by the time they finish third grade, according to Alex Adams, the governor’s budget chief. Little is proposing $3.2 million in boosting those efforts.

“I subscribe to the view that it is better to prepare children today than to repair them later,” Little said in Monday’s State of the State address.

In all, the governor’s proposed budget totals $4.05 billion. That’s a 3.75% increase from the previous fiscal year -- the smallest percentage increase in more than five years. 

Last year, his administration ordered state agencies -- aside from K-12 education -- to prepare for a 2% budget cut as the state anticipates a potential recession in the near future. State economist Derek Santos says there’s a 35% chance of a mild recession next year.

Idaho’s rainy day fund currently has $373 million. Should state lawmakers follow Little’s proposal, that fund would grow by another $102 million. That would cover about 15% of how much revenue the state expect to take in next fiscal year.

Despite the cuts to state agencies, the governor is proposing a 2% pay bump for public employees.

Idaho’s prisons are seeing a surge in spending spurred on by a ballooning inmate population. The state Department of Correction budget would mushroom by $30.2 million next year under Little’s plan, or a nearly 12.1% increase over the current year.

Little wants to nearly double the number of inmates Idaho sends to out of state prisons to 1,100. Six hundred fifty one inmates are currently housed at Eagle Pass Correctional Facility in Texas, a private prison that’s been marred by a scathing audit that found one Idaho inmate died last year after staff failed to get him to a doctor, despite an escalating illness.

Little says he hopes to open up bed space in local prisons by investing $8.6 million in reentry and intervention programs to help curb the state’s recidivism rate. In Idaho, 62% of people incarcerated here are there for probation and parole violations, Adams said, the largest percentage in the country.

“We have a choice. We can either invest in measures designed to reduce the demand for prison beds and promote safer communities, or we can do nothing and ensure the next check we write is larger than the last,” Little said. 

The governor’s budget deviates from a legislative committee’s recommendations on how to pay for the first full-year of Idaho’s Medicaid expansion that began Jan. 1. About half of the roughly $41 million bill would be paid for through savings, with $12.5 million coming from the Millennium Fund, which typically pays for anti-smoking initiatives.

Idaho’s 44 counties would also chip in $8.5 million -- less than what they most recently paid for indigent healthcare costs. But it’s unclear how those costs will be divvied up.

“We look forward to those discussions in the days and weeks ahead,” Adams said.

An interim legislative committee had wanted counties to pay up to $10 million in its recommendation, which will ultimately be decided by the House and Senate.

Reclaim Idaho, the group behind the successful Medicaid expansion ballot initiative in 2018 applauded part of Little’s plan to pay for it, but wrinkled its nose at his proposal to shoulder counties with at least part of the bill.

“This is a harmful and unnecessary measure that could lead to even higher property taxes for Idaho families,” the group said in a statement.

Little also wants to put $35 million towards reducing the state’s grocery tax in some way, though he hasn’t laid out a specific way to do so. That’s less than half of what it would take to completely eliminate the tax. 

Instead, he intends to let the legislature hash out its own solution.

The Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee, which ultimately writes Idaho’s budget, will get a more complete breakdown of the governor’s proposed budget Tuesday morning.

A copy of the governor's address is below:

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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