Lt. Gov. Brad Little understands how success and prosperity can be passed down among generations in Idaho.
As he seeks election to be Idaho’s next governor this fall, Little, a Republican, said he wants to ensure the state remains a place where future generations can succeed. He does not want Idaho to be a place that teenagers entering early adulthood flee for better opportunities in other states.
If elected, he said he would apply that thought process as a lens to every decision that crosses the governor’s desk.
His family’s experience is illustrative. His grandfather, Andy Little, became a giant in the sheep business in Idaho after he immigrated from Scotland in the late 1800s. His business grew to more than 100,000 sheep, and extended to ranches in the Boise and Payette valleys, as well as in Blaine County. He earned the nickname “Idaho Sheep King.”
Before he was appointed lieutenant governor in 2009, Brad Little managed his family’s sheep business for more than 30 years.
In his plane trips across Idaho, Little said he remembers to look down on his family’s burial plots near Muldoon. He considers where Idaho has been as he contemplates his key question for the 2018 election—what’s next?
“They want a chance for their kids to thrive,” Little said of future generations. “They want to know there’s a good education system for their kids. The issue is, ‘What’s next?’”
When he became lieutenant governor, Idaho was in the throes of a deep, nationwide economic recession that purged jobs statewide and led to deep cuts in the state budget.
The state has emerged in robust fashion since then, and has led the nation in job growth in recent years. New residents have poured into the state, particularly in the Treasure Valley, from states such as Oregon, Washington, Colorado and California.
Last December, the U.S. Census Bureau proclaimed Idaho the nation’s fastest growing state from July 2016 to July 2017. The population grew by 2.2 percent, up to 1.7 million people total, which topped Nevada’s 2 percent and Utah’s 1.9 percent.
This November, voters will be asked to decide a ballot measure expanding Medicaid in Idaho to include residents in the gap population—those who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to get subsidized care under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Little said he will abide by the voters’ decisions, but said he was concerned the ACA could be struck down at the U.S. Supreme Court, based on a lawsuit from Texas. The Supreme Court declined to do that when the law faced a legal challenge in 2012.
“If the people use their constitutional right to write legislation, I will implement it,” Little said. “What’s going to be the ramification of the unwinding of the Affordable Care Act?”
He said Idaho cannot ignore another gap population—those who had health insurance and are now going without it because it’s become too expensive. He said he is working with the Trump administration to get permission for insurance providers to sell plans that do not comply with provisions of the ACA.
“It’s really important that we address them,” Little said.
Idaho will elect a new governor for the first time since 2006—it will be Little or Democrat Paulette Jordan.
Little said the next governor will implement the fifth year of retiring Gov. Butch Otter’s five-year plan to improve education in Idaho public schools.
What will happen after that? Little said he wants to convene the same groups that forged the consensus agreements underpinning the five-year plan. He said the Legislature has increased funding for education by 34 percent over that time, and the state led the nation in percentage increases for teacher pay this year.
In April, the National Education Association reported that Idaho’s average teacher salary grew to $49,225 this year, compared with $47,504 in 2017. That’s 3.6 percent higher year-over-year, which is indeed the highest in the country and is above North Dakota’s 2.7 percent.
However, the report stated that Idaho’s increase in average teacher salary from 2009-18 was 9 percent, well below North Dakota’s 30.7 percent, South Dakota’s 36.7 percent and California’s 21.1 percent. The report also stated that Idaho had the lowest per-student expenditure in the nation, with $6,761. That was below Utah’s $6,906 and Indiana’s $7,267.
“It’s a collective agreement,” Little said of the increased funding. “It’s not an accident. We got everyone to agree to it.”
Fostering agreements to increase funding is not easy, particularly with Republican majorities in the House and Senate and conservative lawmakers’ distaste for tax increases and growth in government spending.
Little shares that distaste of tax increases, but he still favors increased funding to raise the starting salaries for teachers to $40,000, additional investment in early-childhood education and greater reading proficiency among third-graders.
He said the most recent legislative session offers a way to accomplish both. Lawmakers cut taxes and increased funding for education, relying on a surplus of tax revenue from the strong economy.
“This year we did both,” Little said. “You should grow your way out.”
Utah has a lower income-tax rate than Idaho—it was 5 percent, and lawmakers there lowered it to 4.95 percent earlier this year. Little said when Utah lowered its rate to 5 percent in 2008, Idaho’s was still 7.4 to 7.5 percent.
“We had a lot of businesses who said they were thinking they would move to Idaho and they didn’t,” Little said.
This year, the Legislature passed a cut to the personal and corporate income-tax rates by .475 percent. They topped out at 7.4 percent to start the year.
Little acknowledged that the state has to address a backlog of projects for its road and bridge network, which has been estimated in recent years to tally almost $300 million.
Again, Little said the surplus has helped address that. The Legislature enacted a “surplus eliminator,” which swept some excess revenue into transportation funding. He said Idaho has a good Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, which relies on federal funding. The state is also paying off debt related to GARVEE bonds that provide money for major construction projects but rely on federal transportation dollars to make the payments.
He said he would look at the registration fees trucking companies pay to the state, similar to efforts from a task force convened by Otter, as well as an interim committee.
“This time through, everybody will be looked at,” Little said. “If they aren’t paying their fair share, they should.”