BOISE — Gov. Brad Little has signed into law four major pieces of his “Building Idaho’s Future” initiative, which calls for investing hundreds of millions of dollars of Idaho’s state surplus into one-time water projects, state parks improvements, transportation projects and more.
All told, the governor recommended spending $336 million from the state general fund, plus $20 million in leftover CARES Act coronavirus aid, for the specified investments.
Idaho has a projected general fund budget surplus of roughly $500 million for the current year, not counting the roughly $300 million already set aside for “Building Idaho’s Future” investments.
Alex Adams, Little’s budget director, said, “That surplus is made up of revenues stronger than we had expected, spending reductions, and then general fund that had been freed up based on how we used the federal dollars. All of that just adds to the surplus.”
“We believed many of those dollars were one-time in nature, so we made one-time investments that’ll have long-lasting value for Idaho’s future,” Adams said.
The four major bills Little already has signed into law for the initiative are all supplemental appropriations, authorizing spending during the current budget year, which ends July 1. Several more pieces, including a $126 million transportation funding boost, are headed to the governor’s desk now or still in the works in the Legislature.
Here’s a look at the four already signed:
SB 1121 allocates $50 million to water projects including enlarging Anderson Ranch Reservoir; partnering with the U.S. Air Force on a new water supply for Mountain Home Air Force Base; and funding increased water recharge in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer. Little said in a statement, “Water is truly the source of life. How we manage — or mismanage — our water resources determines our success or failure as a state. Our strategic investment in long-term water projects and safe water systems for our communities will benefit Idahoans for generations to come.”
The bill passed both houses overwhelmingly; Little signed it into law on Thursday.
HB 225 made a nearly $90 million supplemental appropriation to the state’s Permanent Building Fund for specific construction, maintenance and repair projects on public buildings. Little originally had requested more; the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee shifted some of the funds into next year’s budget rather than a supplemental appropriation for this year, but approved them all.
HB 225 includes funding for replacing dorms at the Idaho Youth ChalleNGe Academy in Pierce; major improvements to the Parma agricultural research campus; funding for a new Future Tech facility at the College of Eastern Idaho to support workforce development; two new greenhouses for seedling production and forest research at the University of Idaho; and construction on specific juvenile corrections and adult prison buildings.
The bill passed the House 57-9, and the Senate unanimously; it was signed into law March 17.
HB 204 provides $3 million for improvements at Idaho state parks, including replacing the popular but aging observatory at Bruneau Dunes State Park.
“More than ever before, Idahoans are turning to the outdoors to recreate, relax, connect with nature and loved ones, and just have fun,” Little said.
State Parks Director Susan Buxton said, “With the record-shattering 7.7 million visitors in 2020, our users love Idaho state parks and ask for more facilities, recreation opportunities, and careful resource management.”
The parks bill narrowly passed the House, 35-33, and passed the Senate 31-4. Little signed it into law on March 16.
The fourth major “Building Idaho’s Future” bill signed into law so far allocates $964,000 this year to equipment requested by the Idaho State Police, including new rifles with suppressors; new body cameras; new non-lethal-force riot batons; and more.
“While other places seek to defund the police, I am proud to say that Idaho defends the police. Idaho ‘backs the blue,’” Little said in a statement on signing the bill.
HB 205 passed the House on a 43-25 vote, with 25 House Republicans opposing it; and passed the Senate 34-1. Little signed it into law on March 15.
Some House Republicans derided the governor’s initiative and opposed the whole idea of supplemental appropriations, though those are a staple of state budgeting, merely reflecting the timing of intended spending. Regular appropriations don’t take effect until the following July 1, when the new budget year starts. Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, during House debate, called supplemental appropriations a “shell game.”
The controversy was so prominent in the House that lawmakers began opening their debates on bills, to laughter, saying, “This is NOT a ‘Building Idaho’s Future’ bill.”
On Feb. 26, Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, introducing the public buildings supplemental appropriation to the House, said, “I’m going to just say it right up front, this is a ‘Building Idaho’s Future’ supplemental, so listen with those ears. However, this is one I support.”
Adams declined to address the controversy over the bills in the House. “The outcome is that the Legislature has generally passed the governor’s ‘Building Idaho’s Future’ supplementals, often with a large margin, and the governor is signing them into law,” he said. “So I think from an outcome standpoint, we’re pleased with the progress that we’ve seen this session.”
Other pieces of the initiative that are moving through include tapping $20 million in federal coronavirus aid, left over from Idaho’s $1.25 billion CARES Act allocation, to address learning loss among Idaho public school students. Little originally proposed targeting the whole $20 million for a summer reading program for K-3 students, but JFAC split it to include higher grades as well, and to allocate part this year and part in the next budget year. Adams said after getting updated information about schools’ specific needs, the governor supported that plan.
Still in the works are a $35 million supplemental appropriation for broadband infrastructure, which was set to be voted on in JFAC last Friday when the meeting was canceled and the Legislature recessed until April 6 due to a growing Statehouse COVID-19 outbreak; and two pieces that are in next year’s budget for the state controller’s office, regarding a new higher education procurement system; and for the Department of Environmental Quality, regarding agricultural best management practices and local drinking water grants.
JFAC also was set to consider allocating $15 million in leftover CARES Act funds on Friday, targeting some of that as well to broadband infrastructure, before Friday’s meeting was canceled.
The governor’s initiative also called for both one-time and permanent tax relief, though he left the details to lawmakers.
Little’s office said the “Building Idaho’s Future” initiative is designed “to use Idaho’s record budget surplus to provide Idahoans historic tax relief and make strategic investments in transportation, education, broadband, water, outdoor recreation other critical areas to propel our state forward.”