By Zach Hagadone
In a 29-minute speech Jan. 10, Idaho Gov. Brad Little delivered his fourth State of the State at the Capitol in Boise, officially opening the 2022 session of the Idaho Legislature.
Overall, the governor presented a positive picture of the Gem State, even as it enters a third year of COVID-19 pandemic response and political tensions roil his own Republican Party ahead of what promises to be a hyper-contentious primary election in May.
“Idaho’s economy is stronger than ever before,” Little said in his opening remarks, citing job growth despite the pandemic, a low unemployment rate, balanced budget and an historic $1.9 billion surplus.
“My friends, our success is no accident,” he said.
Little outlined a number of priorities in his budget address, including an increase in funding for education, income tax cuts and investments to address aging infrastructure.
Calling it “the largest investment in Idaho education, ever,” the governor proposed adding $1.1 billion to the education budget over the next five years, focusing in his speech on $47 million in ongoing funding for K-3 literacy programs.
“I cannot think of a more ‘back to basics’ investment that will make a meaningful difference in students’ lives today and for years to come,” he said.
The K-12 budget would see a $300 million increase under Little’s proposed budget, opening the way for the state to fund all-day kindergarten, which the governor’s staff estimates 80% of Idaho families would take advantage of.
On top of that, Little proposed $50 million for grants that would cover things like computers, tutoring, internet connectivity and other education needs outside the classroom. Last year the state served 18,000 families representing 46,000 students with such grants.
Little also lauded the $450 million in income tax cuts in Idaho last year.
“It was called the biggest tax cut in state history, but I call it a good start,” he said.
Blasting President Joe Biden’s handling of the economy, which he twice referred to as resulting in runaway “Bidenflation,” Little proposed delivering more than $1 billion in income tax relief over the next five years, starting with an immediate $600 million in relief.
That package would include $350 million in income tax rebates for Idahoans in 2022 on top of $250 million to pay for cutting the highest income tax bracket for both individual taxpayers and corporations from 6.5% to 6%.
Turning to transportation infrastructure spending, Little proposed $200 million in additional ongoing funding to address maintenance needs throughout the state, as well as another $200 million one-time expenditure to tackle a third of the backlog of deficient bridges in Idaho.
Referring to the record-breaking $1.9 billion surplus, the governor said, “We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fully fund known needs — to maintain our roads and bridges permanently — with no new taxes.”
Throughout his speech, Little drew unflattering comparisons between Idaho and the federal government, criticizing the Biden administration for “digging the country into a $29 trillion hole” while the Gem State enjoys never-before-seen prosperity.
“In Idaho, we manage government the same way families manage a household budget,” he said. “It is basic ‘kitchen table economics.’ It means facing trade offs head on, choosing to live within our means, saving for hard times, cutting waste and stretching our dollars further.”
In their response to the governor’s address Jan. 10, Idaho Democratic leaders said the “once-in-a-lifetime” surplus had less to do with “kitchen table economics” and more to do with “systematically underfunding vital services,” according to Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, who serves as House minority leader.
“Idaho has a lot of money in its bank account right now, but it is in large part due to irresponsible decision-making by politicians, where children and working families have been paying the price,” she said in a press conference following Little’s speech.
Rubel also took aim at the governor’s tax relief proposals, calling them “trickle-down” measures that will benefit the top earners and corporations in the state at the expense of “regular working folk.”
“Last year, we saw a bill that took $400 million out of the general fund that funds education so that [the GOP supermajority in the Legislature] could give $10,000 tax cuts to millionaires,” she said, noting that most Idahoans below the highest tax bracket received between $50 and $100 under that plan.
Rather than focus on income tax relief, Rubel and her Democratic colleagues said property taxes present a greater financial burden to Gem State residents.
“We have listened to our constituents — they desperately want a break from sky-rocketing property taxes,” she said. “I have never been contacted by a constituent seeking more income tax breaks for those at the top. It was the Legislature that caused the property tax crisis, and they have the power and responsibility to fix it.”
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, told reporters that, “I did not leave that speech with a list of things I did not like,” according to the Idaho Capital Sun.
Bedke is running against controversial White Bird Republican Rep. Priscilla Giddings for lieutenant governor in the May primary and, despite Little’s evasive answers to reporters’ questions about whether he, too, will be running for reelection, the governor did deliver a number of election year-style jabs and campaign-like pieces of rhetoric.
“While President Biden divides Americans in his attempts to elevate the role of government in citizens’ lives, coercing Americans with government-imposed vaccine mandates, Idaho says, ‘No,’” he said, citing the state’s lawsuits challenging “Biden’s polarizing vaccine mandates.”
While Little’s own COVID-19 policies have come in for fierce criticism from within his own party — including Blanchard Republican Rep. Heather Scott’s now-famous reference to the governor as “Little Hitler” following his early-pandemic lockdown orders — Little underscored that “I banned divisive ‘vaccine passports.’ I never mandated masks or vaccines. We responded to a crisis with a balanced approach and kept Idaho open.”
A raft of bills held over from lawmakers’ three-day special session in November are sure to be reintroduced as the legislative session begins in earnest, all of them pushing back against various state and federal COVID-19 policies.
Meanwhile, Little dedicated 233 words of his speech to attacking Biden’s border policies, representing about 7% of the total address.
Pointing to his visit to the southern border in summer 2021, the governor said that due to Biden’s “flawed border policies,” “Mexico drug cartels control access into our country.”
What’s more, Little highlighted a special team of Idaho state troopers that he deployed to Arizona last year to help fight drug flow. Little also proposed spending $60 million to address needs within the Idaho State Police.
“Idaho is a state that openly values its police officers. While others seek to ‘defund the police,’ Idaho defends the police,” he said. “Idaho truly is a state that ‘backs the blue.’”
If Little does enter the gubernatorial race, he will face a number of challengers, including current-Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who has been hostile to Little’s coronavirus policies and more than once worked to undermine the governor — including while he has been out of the state and she serving as interim-governor.
In what some Statehouse observers have described as a statement targeted at the vitriol that has characterized recent legislative sessions, Little said, “The voice of a leader is effective, not just loud.”
Read Gov. Brad Little’s full 2022 State of the State address at bit.ly/3tjNkcv. Find highlights of his 2022 proposed budget at bit.ly/3K6e3zm.
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