By REBECCA BOONE
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Gov. Brad Little announced proposals Monday for property tax relief, education funding and efforts to fight the influx of illegal fentanyl during his annual State of the State address.
The Republican governor’s speech, which outlines his top budget and policy priorities, kicks off Idaho’s legislative session each year.
Education funding — in the form of a $410 million budget boost approved by lawmakers during a fall special session — topped Little’s priorities.
Making Idaho a place where residents’ children and grandchildren choose to stay means ensuring good educational opportunities and expanded career opportunities so they can be confident in their jobs and incomes, he said.
“We are not backing down on education; we are doubling down on education,” Little told a House chamber packed with representatives, senators, top state elected officials, members of the Idaho Supreme Court and spectators.
Though the $410 million funding boost has already been approved, lawmakers must decide exact allocations. There is $330 million earmarked for K-12 public education and another $80 million toward training for what lawmakers dubbed “in-demand occupations.”
Little also proposed using that $80 million for a scholarship program starting next year of $8,500 for graduating Idaho high school students who choose to attend college, university, or career training in Idaho. The scholarship will be the single largest investment in career technical and workforce training in Idaho history, he said.
“Never have we provided a catalyst of this magnitude for students to ‘go on,’ in whatever way suits them,” Little said, whether becoming a welder or lineman or going into engineering, healthcare or teaching. “No matter what path a student chooses we are making it easier for them to get the advanced training they need to propel themselves and Idaho’s economy forward.”
His proposed budget includes additional funding to raise teacher salaries — aiming to make Idaho one of the 10 states with the highest salaries for entry-level teachers — and money to increase higher education capacity for some in-demand careers.
Little’s budget includes $120 million for property tax relief, by helping local governments cover infrastructure costs, he said. In Idaho, property taxes go toward local governments and schools. Helping local governments with costs for water systems, bridges and other infrastructure will mean cities and counties won’t have to go to local taxpayers for those funds, Little said.
Little also talked about investing in law enforcement and public safety initiatives, including proposed 10% raises for law enforcement officers. That would average out to an increase of about $6,000 for Idaho State Police troopers, he said.
He also asked the Legislature to hold a moment of silence for four University of Idaho students slain at a home near campus on Nov. 13. A former Washington State University graduate student was arrested Dec. 30 and charged with four counts of murder. Bryan Kohberger has not yet entered a plea.
Little called the killings “one of the worst crimes our state and our nation has seen.”
He called each of the victims by their first names, adding, “The loss of these incredible people is felt exponentially, and we will never forget them. We will vigorously seek justice for the victims and the many loved ones they leave behind.”
Little also introduced a grieving family who attended the speech. Jennifer and Frank Stabile’s 15-year-old son Michael died when he took a pill he thought was a painkiller, but instread contained a lethal dose of fentanyl, Little said.
He announced an education campaign to warn youth about the danger’s of fentanyl featuring Michael’s story, as well as plans for a new Idaho State Police drug enforcement team.
He said he would send a team of ISP officers to Arizona as part of an effort to help secure the border.
“In 2021, the State of Arizona called for support in controlling the chaos at the border. I sent a team of drug interdiction specialists with ISP to help,” Little said.
The new trip to the border will allow the law enforcement team to, “hone their skills and return with even better knowledge to train police in our state on the best ways to get fentanyl off our streets,” he s.
Idaho has a whopping budget surplus that was projected to top $1.5 billion by this week, based on the state’s last financial report. Little cautioned against spending too much, however, citing a poor economic outlook.
“We must prepare for the impending economic downturn, and now more than ever we must make wise decisions that stand the test of time,” he said. “We can’t cut beyond the level of service Idahoans demand, and we must not use our one-time surplus for wasteful spending.”
In a news conference after Little’s speech, Senate Minority Leader Melissa Wintrow said her party supported the governor’s proposed budget.
“It reflects priorities that Democrats have been advocating for for years – for decades,” said Wintrow, a Democrat from Boise. “Families and businesses in Idaho need a far more robust investment in education.”
The $120 million earmarked for property tax relief should be directed to school facilities and buildings, Wintrow said, since school bonds and levies make up a significant portion of Idaho residents’ property tax bills.
Still, she said that would only cover a small portion of the roughly $1 billion in needed repairs and improvements to existing school buildings statewide.
Speaker of the House Mike Moyle, a Republican from Star, said he planned to take a close look at the costs associated with Medicaid expansion.
Idaho voters authorized Medicaid expansion in 2018 with an initiative that passed with 61% of the vote after years of inaction by state lawmakers. The expansion allowed people earning up to 138% of the federal poverty level to qualify for Medicaid.
But costs associated with the expansion have been higher than anticipated.
“We’ve got to be careful going forward that we get that spending under control and don’t put ourselves in a box,” Moyle said. He said he hoped that the Legislature would advance a bill to keep rising Medicaid costs from “breaking the budget.”