Gov. Brad Little’s annual “Address to the Business Community” was an upbeat one on Monday, stressing Idaho’s “incredible economic success” despite a year and a half of the coronavirus pandemic.
“But a warning,” Little told a crowd of about 250 at the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce’s annual luncheon event, “One of the best ways to continue that success is for Idahoans to choose to get the COVID-19 vaccine.”
“Now, as we all know, the COVID variants are spreading,” Little said. “We’re seeing more cases and hospitalizations, and almost entirely among the unvaccinated population.”
He stressed,as he did last week, that more widespread vaccination is the key to Idaho keeping schools open for in-person learning this year, comments that came on the same day students returned to the classroom for the school year in Boise.
“I would encourage you all as business leaders to communicate the safety and the effectiveness of the vaccine to those around you,” Little told the crowd, “so we can give those kids the best chance for a productive school year.”
“More vaccines are our ticket to getting out of the pandemic,” he said.
He also encouraged business leaders to follow the state’s lead in offering employees paid time off to get vaccinated, which he said research showed is “something that works.”
And Little lauded Idaho businesses for their record in dealing with the pandemic. “Idaho businesses stepped up and faced the pandemic straight in the eye,” Little said. “You were nimble, and have shown great leadership in unprecedented times. I wouldn’t be standing here highlighting the state’s great achievements if it wasn’t for you.”
Surplus hits $1.4 billion
The governor pointed to the state’s record budget surplus, now up to $1.4 billion; low unemployment rates; strong rainy-day fund balances and a fully solvent state pension fund as signs of Idaho’s economic health.
“Quick action during the pandemic, combined with years of fiscal conservatism, have positioned Idaho on track for another record economic year,” he said.
He touted this year’s record state income tax cuts; a “historic investment in transportation without raising taxes or fees;” increases in the state’s K-12 public schools budget; “and the list goes on and on.”
“Now we are in position for another record budget surplus, and I look forward to seeking continued tax relief, strategic investments where they count, including significant investments in both education and workforce development so you can hire and keep skilled workers to get the job done,” Little said.
“We’ll stay in the black, not only because our Constitution requires it, but because we have taken all the steps that we need to prepare for hard times,” he said. “We have ample rainy-day funds. In Idaho, we do not default to raising taxes on citizens and businesses to plug the hole for government.”
Invest, or return?
When the audience got a chance to question the governor, a local business leader, Jim Gasaway, vice president and senior technology leader at Kount, asked, “Personally speaking, giving tax money back to people, all great, fantastic, but why are we not investing that in the future of Idaho? It’s a huge surplus.”
Gasaway said hundreds of millions in surplus state funds could be invested into world-class work at Idaho universities like the already launched collaboration between Boise State University and the University of Idaho on cybersecurity. “Why are we not doing that?” Gasaway asked the governor.
Little said the tax cuts are part of the state’s investments. “The biggest part of it is we’re giving people back part of what they paid the year before,” he said.
“But the question that I have, and a lot of high-level economists, is we don’t know what normal is yet,” the governor said. “The federal government spiked this economy with $6 trillion. The last thing we want to do … is create an ongoing expense that either means we have to cut spending or raise taxes in the future. So we’re trying to normalize it. This next session of the Legislature, there’s $2 billion that’s available. I am certain that a lot of that is going to be invested.”
“I’m just very concerned that we’re going to get a year or two down the road, and this spike of federal money is not going to be sustainable going forward,” Little said. “If it is, then we will have the ability to continue to invest it. So that’s … the reasoning of me and many others.”
Other questions focused on Idaho’s behavioral health and mental health needs, on which Little pointed to a new plan that’s been developed by a council including all three branches of state government; this year’s sweeping property tax bill, HB 389, of which Little said, “Time has revealed some of the shortcomings of that piece of legislation” and that even its authors “recognize some of the problems with it;” and climate change and wildfire smoke, on which he said part of the answer is creating more resilient forests.
“What was sustainable on the forests of Idaho when we had normal winters is not sustainable today,” he said. “But this is hard. If we did everything we had in our queue, we still couldn’t scale it up to the need that we have.”
The governor also was asked about the help-wanted signs dotting business districts around the state, and Idaho’s workforce shortage.
“You’ve got to do a couple things,” he said. “You’ve got to have more people and then you’ve got to have more affordable housing.” Many of the housing questions are the purview of local governments, he said. “We have no shortage of people moving into the state.”
He added, “One of the things that I think is most important, and we’ve had a conversation with the chamber about it, is real high-quality daycare because then you can put more women in the workforce.” Women’s workforce participation has been suffering in the pandemic, he noted. Little said he’s proposed to funnel American Rescue Plan Act federal pandemic aid into those efforts, to both increase early literacy across the state and “put more people in the workforce” by making more high-quality daycare available.
“That’s something the state can probably seed and do some things on,” he said. He also noted that wages for the state’s lower-end jobs have been rising quickly, particularly in the Treasure Valley and other population centers. “That’s exactly what we need,” he said, adding, “Believe me, I remember when we had 10% unemployment. I’ll take this problem any day over that problem.”
Audience members gave the governor’s talk high marks. Kingsley Osei-Boateng, a business development consultant at Wells Fargo Bank, said, “One thing that really stood out to me was the need for a better quality of day care, to get more women to work,” he said, adding that he thought the governor was “very on point on the employment challenges that businesses are finding.”
Mat Erpelding, a former state lawmaker and former chamber official who started in early July as the new government affairs director for Micron Technology, said, “I think the governor has his pulse on the challenges. … He’s aware of the work that needs to go into enhancing the workforce and making sure we have housing.”
Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, co-chair of the Legislature’s joint budget committee, said, “I loved every bit of it,” and said he took lots of notes. “We’ve got to get things moving,” Youngblood said. “We’ve got to get our economy strong — things are rolling.” He called it a welcome break from “all the fear” he’s been hearing.