BOISE — Eastern Idaho lawmakers of all political stripes found something to like Monday about Gov. Brad Little’s first State of the State speech and budget proposal.
“I liked the fact that he stressed the good relationship with the (Idaho National Laboratory), which is so important to eastern Idaho,” said Sen. Mark Nye, D-Pocatello.
Nye also liked that Little said he is committed to implementing Medicaid expansion, which voters approved in a ballot measure in November.
“Hopefully we can work to pass exactly what the voters asked for, rather than try to amend it or revise it,” Nye said.
Reps. Barbara Ehardt and Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls, said they were happiest with Little’s promise to issue an executive order saying state agencies need to get rid of two regulations for every new one they pass.
“That was absolutely fantastic,” Ehardt said.
“Overall (I’m) very optimistic,” Zollinger said. “I agreed with most everything he said.”
Zollinger and Ehardt also said they liked what Little said about raising teacher pay, although Ehardt added she wants to make sure veteran teachers are treated as well as new ones.
Idaho’s new Republican governor, who was elected in November to succeed Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, frequently talked about education on the campaign trail, and his budget proposal reflects this. He is asking lawmakers for $48 million to fund the last year of the “career ladder,” a five-year plan to raise teacher pay, plus another $11.23 million to boost teachers’ starting pay to $40,000 a year and another $7.18 million for “master educator premiums” that go to some more experienced teachers.
Little talked frequently about boosting early childhood reading scores during the campaign, and he is asking lawmakers to double, from $13 million to $26 million, the amount the state spends on early childhood literacy programs. Districts would have some flexibility in how they spend this money and could spend it on different programs, although under current regulations they couldn’t put it toward pre-kindergarten programs.
“It was a great speech,” said College of Eastern Idaho President Rick Aman, who was in Boise for the event. “I think it gives us a good direction for the future. Certainly a good emphasis on education.”
Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, who has been actively involved in education issues and is a vice chairwoman of the Legislature’s budget-setting committee, said she was “pleased to see his focus on Idaho’s children,” noting his proposal to create a new task force to plan out the next five years of Idaho education policy.
House Minority Caucus Chairwoman Elaine Smith, D-Pocatello, was similarly pleased with Little’s education proposals.
“I thought the governor was positive,” she said. “I very much support education, especially (Idaho State University) being in my legislative district. ... He was positive about becoming an education governor.”
House and Senate minority leaders Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, and Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, were similarly pleased with Little’s overall emphasis on education.
“Those are things that have been our bailiwick for a very long time,” Erpelding said.
They did mention a few areas where they would like to see more, though. Erpelding said he is working on legislation to let districts spend state money on pre-kindergarten programs, and Democrats also plan to introduce a student loan forgiveness bill for rural teachers.
Little, who as lieutenant governor was a co-chairman of the Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission, said he plans to authorize its continuation. He praised INL’s work, mentioning its collaboration with the state’s universities and its role in developing clean energy in Idaho.
“Through the free market and the innovations at the INL, Idaho will continue to expand opportunities for clean and affordable energy for our citizens and the world,” Little said in his speech.
Little’s budget proposal contains a few other eastern Idaho-specific items. He is proposing spending $4.2 million in federal money on combating opioid abuse. While this is a statewide problem, it has often been worse in eastern Idaho, with the Idaho Falls and Pocatello areas seeing the highest overdose death rates in the state for many years of this decade. He is also asking for $1.66 million more for graduate medical programs, including $650,000 for 10 new residencies at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center and $120,000 for programs at Bingham Internal Medicine in Blackfoot.
While Little’s request does not include the $500 million new prison the state Board of Correction proposed last year, he is asking lawmakers for $12.2 million to build a community re-entry center in northern Idaho and $7.4 million to expand the St. Anthony Work Camp by 100 beds. Idaho’s prisons are overcrowded, and more than 700 Idaho inmates are at a private prison in Texas because there isn’t room in-state.
Little acknowledged at a news conference after the speech that his proposal was a “stop-gap” but it will still help. He said Medicaid expansion could also help reduce the state’s prison population, since it will mean some people will have mental health care coverage who don’t now.
“Former offenders cannot be successful after re-entry and on parole if we don’t have the necessary bed space and programs such as drug courts to halt the revolving door,” he said in his speech.
Zollinger said he was glad Little chose to ask to expand the St. Anthony Work Camp rather than build a new prison.
“Now, if we get rid of mandatory minimums to go along with that, we can start making some headway on our horrible reincarceration rates,” he said.
Zollinger is co-sponsoring a bill with Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, to get rid of mandatory minimum sentences for possession of larger amounts of drugs. Last year the bill passed the House but never got a hearing in the Senate. Little didn’t take a definite position on repealing mandatory minimums when asked Monday, but he sounded skeptical.
”We don’t have any kids with a joint that are in prison,” Little said. “Any new bill for me has to go over that safety hurdle and then we’ll look at it.”
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, who voted against last year’s bill, said changing mandatory minimum law could be part of the solution along with more prison beds and rehabilitation programs, but he said he was uncomfortable with “reducing minimums for budgetary sake.”
”I, for one, will defer to our front-line people,” he said. “The district attorneys and the police. The law enforcement side of state government knows this better than we do.”
Little is asking for a 6.7 percent increase boost in general fund spending overall.
“I think that’s optimistic given the cash flow issues for this year, but it’s all a matter of digging into the details,” Horman said.
Horman said the budget committee wants to try this year to do a better job of bringing other lawmakers into the process and working with the Legislature’s other committees, since the fiscal situation can affect their policy decisions.
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said he was pleased with the “overtone of responsible spending” in Little’s speech, such as his saying that any new tax exemptions should be accompanied by either increases in revenue or spending cuts. Bedke did express some concern at the pace at which state spending has been increasing.
“A maintenance budget that’s already over 5 percent is pushing the limits of where conservative Republicans are comfortable,” he said.