Gov. Brad Little tried to shift the narrative Monday.
From governing during a pandemic to governing post-pandemic.
And from his current term to a presumptive run for re-election.
In an optimistic, ambitious virtual State of the State Address, Little offered a hopeful read on the coronavirus — at one point saying, “The dark clouds of the pandemic are starting to part.” He then spent much of his time sketching out his plans for a record $600 million surplus, including layers of tax cuts, a big commitment to transportation projects and a reset on teacher pay raises.
Not surprisingly, Little dodged a question about the political overtones. “It’s a long time till re-election,” he said during a Zoom news conference after Monday’s speech.
But “a long time” is a relative term. The Republican primary is 16 months away. For all practical purposes, the election season is on.
Monday’s events were, without question, reflective of the pandemic. Little delivered his 30-minute speech remotely — not from the podium on the House floor, in front of 105 lawmakers and the state’s executive and judicial branches. That made for a sterile setting, with a speech neither interrupted by enthusiastic applause nor punctuated with awkward silences.
Little acknowledged the hard and hardening realities of a virus that has claimed the lives of more than 1,500 Idahoans, more than 600 since Thanksgiving week. He said the worst part of the pandemic may yet be to come.
But Little pinned his hopes on vaccines, despite a slow rollout that mirrors the plodding pace nationally. As of Monday morning, the vaccines have reached just over 31,000 Idahoans, less than 2 percent of the state’s population, with 4,300 Idahoans fully vaccinated. Yet Little isn’t budging much off of an ambitious vaccine timetable — although he did say it might be June, not May, before low-risk Idahoans will be able to line up for their shots. And Idaho is ready to pour more money into the rollout, starting with $16 million in federal money expected later this month.
“We are not going to let resources be any kind of a detriment,” Little said.
It’s trivial to talk about how Little’s political report card rides on the vaccine rollout, when so much more is on the line. Safe face-to-face learning. An economic recovery stunted by health concerns. And, of course, the lives of an untold number of Idahoans.
But by going all-in with an aggressive agenda, Little is preparing to pivot. By 2022, the start of an election year, he wants to be able to run not just on pandemic response, but on tax relief and education and infrastructure investments.
When legislators talk about the 2021 session, they’re talking big as well. House Speaker Scott Bedke said Monday. “The conversations are not about trying to have a quick kick-the-can-down-the-road session,” said Bedke, R-Oakley.
The reason anyone can even think big is because Idaho is sitting on a $600 million budget surplus. Yes, Little and his budget team have to scrape together the money to get to this prodigious cash balance. House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, flatly calls the surplus an “illusion,” built on federal coronavirus stimulus dollars and a history of neglecting the state’s needs.
But Little is treating the $600 million as a real-deal windfall — and he went out of his way to give legislators a share of the credit for Idaho’s fortune.
He said the GOP’s fiscal prudence, predating the coronavirus pandemic, have put Idaho’s leaders in an enviable position.
“We limited government spending, used conservative revenue forecasting, and maintained healthy rainy-day balances,” Little said. “While other states face potential budget cuts of 20 to 40 percent, Idaho is in the enviable position of having a record budget surplus.”
Olive branches to the Legislature notwithstanding, this still won’t be a seamless session:
- After a contentious special session in August, legislators still want to take a hard look at the governor’s emergency powers. There is a potential cost. If the state lifts Little’s coronavirus emergency declaration, that could jeopardize some $24 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency money for the state, plus FEMA payments to local governments, said Alex Adams, Little’s budget director. Lawmakers are mindful of the FEMA funding issue, Bedke said, but they will start introducing legislation on separation of powers Tuesday.
- Little is calling for $455 million in one-time and permanent tax cuts, but he says he’s ready to bargain with legislators about the details. Look for a panoply of proposals — which might or might not have long-range implications for education funding.
- Little wants to carve out $80 million in ongoing money for transportation projects, with at least half of the money coming from user fees. But he’s willing to get the rest from state tax coffers, and that is again likely to spark some debate. Every general fund tax dollar that goes into asphalt is a dollar that can’t go into a classroom.
- Little sticks to some tried-and-true education initiatives. He wants lawmakers to renew their commitment to the teacher salary career ladder, to the tune of $44.9 million, and up the ante on early literacy by putting $20 million into summer reading programs to narrow the pandemic achievement gap. His bigger fight might be passing a higher education budget, when a cadre of House conservatives want to yank the pursestrings to rein in what they consider a leftist, activist agenda.
Plenty of political battles await. But then again, the election season is pretty much upon us.
More reading: A closer look at Little’s education funding plans.