BOISE, Idaho (AP) —
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 healthcare 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% 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 $4.2 billion, a 3.8% increase over last year's original budget, which was later revised after COVID-19 entered the state.
“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.
Republican House Speaker Scott Bedke said there was much to like in the governor's speech.
“Our priorities and the governor's priorities — it doesn't take a lot of spinning to make them be pretty well aligned, frankly,” he said.
However, both the House and Senate plan to pursue legislation to realign the balance of power when it comes to emergency declarations by an Idaho governor. Leaders in both chambers have said they should have played a role in the spending of the $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus money, which they were excluded from in the current system.
Republicans hold supermajorities in the House and Senate.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett said she had some agreement with Republicans in that area, saying some type of mechanism to call the part-time Legislature back into session if a governor renews an emergency declaration might be in order.
She and Democratic House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel were concerned Republicans would aim the proposed $450 million tax cuts at the wealthiest Idaho residents, shortchanging less well-off residents.
Rubel said that $600 million surplus was an “illusion having been generated at the cost of inadequate services for our citizens" and the $1.25 billion in federal money. She said it might be more appropriate to call the surplus a “systematic underfunding of infrastructure, education and other vital needs.”
Democrats in the House and Senate wanted the session delayed because of the coronavirus and the potential for the session to turn into a super-spreader event, with lawmakers potentially carrying the virus home. Little also suggested a delayed session until more people are vaccinated.
But Bedke said he did not expect a brief session.
“The conversations that I'm a part of are not about finding a quick, kick-the-can-down-the-road type of session," he said. “I think you have a bunch of issues that are overdue some type of a solution.”