By BRIAN WALKER
COEUR d'ALENE — Gov. Brad Little came eye-to-eye Friday with some of the Idaho students he focused state spending on during his first 100 days as Idaho's 33rd governor.
Little said the accomplishment that he's most proud of so far is investments he and the Legislature made in public education.
"I will continue to work hard in the next four years to make Idaho the place where our children and grandchildren want to stay," said Little, who stopped by The Press on Friday for an interview. "We're moving the ball on education in Idaho."
During the interview, Little met Luke Simisky and Nate Burch, both Coeur d'Alene High seniors who were job shadowing at the newspaper.
"There are significant college scholarship opportunities," Little told the students, with a smile.
The governor was speaking about the $7 million the Legislature appropriated for the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship Program.
Simisky asked Little how often he interacts with federal lawmakers.
Little said he's in contact with the federal elected officials often, especially to help ensure federal funds flow to state programs as planned. One example of that, he said, was for the $42.2 million that will be spent on the construction of the state's fourth veterans home in Post Falls.
With that hurdle cleared during the recent legislative session, construction on the facility could start as soon as late this year, said Len Crosby, a local veteran who has been working on the project.
Little said he remains pleased with Idaho's budget picture, which includes a projected $174 million remaining at the end of fiscal year 2020.
"We made great advances since January to improve the lives of Idahoans while maintaining a conservative budget," he said. "We've never been a big government, big spending state."
The school budget will grow 6.3 percent for fiscal 2020, including funding for teacher pay raises, literacy proficiency, kindergarten readiness, a task force called Our Kids, Idaho's Future that will evaluate future needs and other programs.
Little said he expects to appoint members to the task force in the next two to three weeks. Among the tasks will be developing a future spending recommendation for education.
"A lot of it is relative to the economy, cost of living and trying to be competitive with surrounding states," he said.
Idaho education investments approved during the session include:
• increasing starting teacher pay to $40,000 over the next two years;
• $13.16 million to provide literacy support for kindergarten through third-grade students;
• $100,000 for a K-12 task force to evaluate future school funding;
• $49.68 million to fund the fifth year of a five-year funding plan for the career ladder for certified employees and staff;
• $60,000 for library programs to help kids be better prepared for kindergarten; and
• $3 million to accommodate the increasing number of students utilizing the Advanced Opportunities Program.
Providing affordable health care was a focus during the session, including a fully funded implementation of Medicaid expansion passed by voters as Proposition 2, Little said.
Diversified health insurance options have been made available for residents priced out of Obamacare, he said. Other progress the governor cited includes improved access to life-saving medication for those suffering from opioid misuse and Idaho's plan to bring on 19 new medical resident physicians and fellows to address the physician shortage.
Reducing regulatory burdens was another priority, Little said.
The Red Tape Reduction Act requires state agencies to eliminate or scale back two rules for every new one that's proposed.
The Licensing Freedom Act puts in place sunrise and sunset procedures for future occupational licensing laws.
Little also signed a bill making it easier for veterans, military members and their families to obtain occupational licenses.
On the economic front, Idaho stood with President Donald Trump and asserted Idaho's position in global economy by supporting the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, Little said. New trade opportunities through meetings with foreign diplomats from Japan, Taiwan, Mexico and Micronesia have also opened up, he said.
Highlights of promoting confidence in state government have included enhanced cybersecurity and protection of citizens’ data by consolidating and modernizing information technology functions across eight state agencies. Idaho also became the first state to deploy a technology tool to safeguard taxpayer money from waste, fraud and abuse.