BOISE — An enthusiastic Gov. Brad Little told the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce on Thursday that the state is poised to make long-needed, major upgrades to its infrastructure, schools and business climate.
“I never thought I’d achieve the trifecta — record tax reform and tax relief, record education investments, and record transportation investments,” Little told a crowd of about 250 at the chamber’s annual Legislative Forum. Sprinkled among the audience were dozens of state lawmakers, along with business leaders and other chamber members.
Little also called on the business community to help with his initiatives in two areas: Ensuring contractors are ready for all the work coming their way due to infrastructure investments in roads, bridges, water, sewer and broadband; and addressing the state’s child care crisis that’s limited participation of Idaho women in the state’s workforce.
“When I go around and talk to businesses and chambers all around the state, there’s two issues that come up,” the governor said, “and it used to be these issues only came up in urban areas, but now they come up all over the state. That’s workforce housing and that’s access to quality child care.”
“I can’t snap my fingers and fix both of those, but we have two concrete programs that we’ve vetted with people that build workforce housing, that we’ve vetted with people that provide child care,” he said. “And each one of these pots of money will have $50 million.”
Little has proposed allocating $50 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act aid for a new program at the Idaho Housing and Finance Association to provide gap financing for development of affordable housing. On child care, he’s proposing a $50 million allocation over four years to the state’s Workforce Development Council to “try and build capacity,” including $25 million next year.
The money would go to grants to expand child care infrastructure.
“Whether it’s a large business that wants to provide child care for their employees, or a series of smaller businesses or a community that says, ‘We need help standing up somebody’s day care,’” the program could help, Little said. “I’m not talking about warehousing these kids. I’m talking about helping ‘em with literacy and having quality day care. We’re using one-time money to do this.”
“This is something I hope the business community takes on in a lot of regards, mainly for competitiveness,” the governor told the chamber crowd. “We need young people, we need young families to be in the business community, and the best way to do that, to get that labor participation rate, particularly among women, back up is child care.”
The governor also touted big investments he’s proposing in road and bridge repair and maintenance; and in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure across the state, tapping both federal aid funds and the state’s unprecedented $1.9 billion budget surplus.
“There’s all this federal money everywhere, there’s all this work we’re doing,” he said. “What we really need are contractors to implement this.”
Government agencies and industry all need to work together to have the contractors and workers ready to go, Little said. “The sooner we get it out there to where contractors know what the projects are, the better off we’re going to be down the road.”
Little also touted other initiatives in his newly unveiled budget for next year, which he submitted to lawmakers this week as they begin this year’s legislative session, from outdoor recreation investments to expanding nursing and other health care training programs.
“Let me talk a little bit about my No. 1 priority, which is education,” he said. “As I’ve looked at this over … my legislative and lieutenant governor career, there are some fundamental things we needed to do, and they were aspirational in nature. But to think that we’re going to get them all done in this year is just mind-boggling to me.”
That ranges from improvements to teacher pay, including accelerating the teacher career ladder to allow school districts to implement two rungs in one year; to $1,000 bonuses for every Idaho teacher this year; and $47 million more a year for early literacy including district options for funding full-day kindergarten.
“If my recommendation is adopted on literacy, we will have increased five-fold what is available to your local school district to help these kids reading proficiently by the end of the third grade,” Little said. “That’s a big deal.” The crowd interrupted him with applause. “I don’t detect a lot of pushback on that, so I’m very, very excited about that,” he said.
He also cited his proposal to make a big state investment into health insurance for teachers at school districts across the state, bringing them up to par with other state employees.
“We have a constitutional obligation on having a uniform school system,” the governor said. “Rural districts have had a hard time being competitive in the benefits area, particularly health insurance.”
“Because of the enviable position we’re in, we’re going to be able to equalize funding for health care for all the districts, all over the state,” he said. “That is going to pay off for years, particularly in recruiting and retaining the best teachers for rural Idaho.”
The governor’s remarks were followed by a panel discussion on infrastructure, featuring speakers from the Idaho Transportation Department, the state Department of Environmental Quality, Valley Regional Transit and Sparklight. All pointed to big things in the works for Idaho.
Molly McCarty of ITD said, “These funding sources … when you put them together, it’s just incredible times for us.”
Kelli Badesheim of Valley Regional Transit said the new federal infrastructure bill will bring $11 million a year to Ada and Canyon counties, including funds for transit improvements.
Among those in the audience was Dave Butzier, Idaho operations manager for the AECOM multinational engineering firm, formerly URS. “Infrastructure is not a sexy topic, but it is no longer something that no one’s talking about,” he said. “Everyone’s talking about it, and that’s exciting.”
URS acquired Washington Group International of Boise in 2007, which had merged with the legendary Boise engineering giant Morrison-Knudsen Corp. in 1996. AECOM acquired URS in 2014.
Tom Van Hemelryck, Idaho regional president for WaFd Bank, formerly known as Washington Federal, said he appreciated the governor’s comments. “I think he hit on all the hot buttons,” Van Hemelryck said, “and I’m encouraged by the fact that we’re being proactive and he’s got solutions. I think the growth is going to be a challenge, but I think it’s going to be well-managed. … I feel good about the future of Idaho.”