Little restates commitment to teacher pay raises

Gov.-elect Brad Little restated his commitment Thursday to boosting teacher salaries, and keeping good educators in Idaho.

The details will come in the next few days. But Little dropped a few hints Thursday morning, as he spent an hour fielding and sometimes deflecting questions from Statehouse reporters.

Little said teacher pay raises are “a pretty high priority for me,” reprising a promise from the 2018 campaign. Little also suggested that pay raises are a higher priority than another one of his campaign promises: repealing the sales tax on groceries.

But Little also urged reporters — and by extension, Idahoans — to stay tuned. Little will deliver two important speeches in the next four days. On Friday, the Republican will be sworn in as Idaho’s 33rd governor. Monday’s State of the State address will outline Little’s agenda for the 2019 legislative session, his 2019-20 budget request and his first year as governor.

Gov.-elect Brad Little

On Thursday, Little upheld another Statehouse tradition, speaking at a legislative preview hosted by the Associated Press. The annual question-and-answer session always receives close attention from Statehouse insiders. If anything, Little’s appearance drew a bit more scrutiny, as it offered a window into a new administration. Among those in the audience: several legislators, including House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill; Marilyn Whitney, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s newly hired legislative liaison; and representatives of the Idaho School Boards Association and the Idaho Education Association.

Here are a few hints and unanswered questions:

Teacher salaries. Little said Idaho needs to stem the tide of teachers who leave the state. And he made clear that he considers pay raises part of the solution. During the campaign, Little advocated boosting the minimum teacher salary to $40,000, up from the current $35,800.

The grocery tax repeal. Little said he would not push to repeal the grocery tax if it interfered with the five-year plan from outgoing Gov. Butch Otter’s K-12 task force. The career ladder — a five-year, $250 million effort to boost teacher pay — is the spendiest item from the task force. The 2019 Legislature will need to decide whether to fund the fifth year of the career ladder, at a cost of $52.9 million.

Medicaid expansion. Little again said he was committed to implementing the expansion, overwhelmingly approved by voters in November. He also suggested the expansion — and the 90 percent funding match from the feds — could help the state save money on providing health care in its prisons system. But the expansion carries upfront costs to the state, and opponents say the expansion could jeopardize education funding.

Early education. Little deflected a question on this issue. During the campaign, Little said he would push for a grant program to allow school districts to offer all-day kindergarten or pre-K. Idaho is among only a handful of states without a state-funded pre-K program.

The “60 percent” goal. Little said he remains “all in” on the campaign to get 60 percent of Idaho’s 25- to 34-year-olds to obtain a college degree or postsecondary certificate. Idaho’s postsecondary completion rate remains stuck at 42 percent — even after the state has spent more than $133 million since 2013-14 on programs to encourage high school graduates to continue their education. Little didn’t say whether he wanted to tweak the way the state is spending its money. “Stay tuned.”

The school funding formula. Little voiced caution about the “zero-sum game” of rewriting the school funding formula. A rewrite could overhaul the way the state carves up $1.8 billion in K-12 spending — and provide more money for some districts and charters, and less money for others. Rolling out a rewrite, and offering short-term help for schools facing a funding cut, would need to be weighed against other education needs, Little said.

During a separate panel discussion Thursday, Bedke said the state needs a new formula that reflects a mobile student population.

“We’ve got to transition into this new way at some timetable,” said Bedke, R-Oakley, who has spent the past three years serving on a legislative committee pushing for a new formula.

Check back Friday and Monday for highlights from Little’s inauguration, and full coverage of his State of the State address.       

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