Analysis: In his first day on the job, Little embraces the long view

Brad Little – for years Idaho’s governor in waiting — seemed willing to play the long game Monday.

With his first State of the State address, and with his first budget proposal, Little set the stage for the 2019 legislative session. But he also set several issues aside for another day. Or another year.

The catchall reason for caution: sluggish tax collections that might or might not rebound when Idahoans settle up their income tax bills in April. But there’s likely another subtext. Little, a well-documented policy wonk, clearly wants to put his imprint on some complicated topics.

Here’s a first look at 2019, and beyond.

Medicaid expansion. Little rolled out a $20 million plan to finance the voter-passed Proposition Two in 2020, without a hit on the state’s general fund budget. He wants to pull money from the Millennium Fund, Idaho’s share of a national settlement with tobacco companies, and siphon money from other state agency budgets.

In the short term, this could head off a debate between funding Medicaid expansion and other state programs, such as education. But the funding plan is only a one-year fix, said Alex Adams, head of Little’s Division of Financial Management.

The grocery tax. Caution was a watchword in Little’s 34-minute State of the State address. “In true Idaho fashion, we will not spend money until it’s in the bank.”

That applies to tax cuts as well, and one of Little’s big campaign promises is on hold. He said he doesn’t want to repeal the sales tax on groceries until 2020, to allow the state to set some more money into budget reserves.

This wasn’t a big surprise. Last week, Little said he wanted to put education funding ahead of the grocery tax repeal. And Little proposed a $106 million increase for K-12, with much of the money going into teacher pay raises.

School safety. Through sheer omission, Little’s budget proposal all but killed state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s Keep Idaho Students Safe initiative. Ybarra wanted a $19.1 million supplemental appropriation for this year, for the budget cycle ending June 30, to provide school safety grants to schools. Little did not go along with this request.

That’s partly a function of revenue concerns, and the slow income tax collections, Adams said. But he said Little also wants to work with education groups on a school safety plan.

Some education groups say they were cut out of the loop when Ybarra came up with her plan.

In a news release Monday, Ybarra put the best face on things. She said she looks forward to working on the issue, and said she still hopes for funding for school safety.

At this point, however, this looks like an issue for 2020 at the earliest.

School funding formula. For three years, lawmakers have studied Idaho’s complicated K-12 funding formula — and this is the year they hope to recommend changes.

Little didn’t mention the topic Monday. What’s more, his budget doesn’t put aside any money to roll out a rewritten formula — and provide bridge funding for school districts and charter schools that stand to lose money in the transition.

Reporters didn’t even have to prompt House Speaker Scott Bedke on the issue Monday afternoon. During a news conference after the State of the State address, Bedke said Little was “strangely silent” on the funding formula. Bedke also said he believes the House will pass a rewrite this year.

After three years on the Legislature’s funding formula committee, Bedke is ready to move. Little seems to be in less of a hurry.

Higher education funding. Little put the brakes on a State Board of Education plan to move $16 million into outcomes-based funding — tying higher education dollars to metrics such as on-time graduations or degrees by low-income or at-risk students. Little wants to study the idea further.

Pre-K, or not pre-K. Little wants to put an additional $13 million into programs to help students read at grade level by the end of third grade. That money could go into all-day kindergarten or summer programs, but not directly into pre-K programs.

Idaho is one of only a handful of states that does not fund pre-K programs. That seems unlikely to change in 2019.

New governor, new task force. Gov. Butch Otter’s task force yielded an “unprecedented, sustained effort” to improve Idaho schools, Little said Monday.

Now, Little wants his own group — “Our Kids, Idaho’s Future” — and a followup five-year plan.

Task forces take time.

But if anything was evident Monday, it’s this: Little seems content to give the process time to work.

More coverage: Listing education as his top priority, Little outlines plan for teacher pay raises.

 

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