Idaho governor eyes tax relief with budget surplus

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Potential tax relief, as well as investments in education and transportation, are on the table after tax revenue blew past projections for the third consecutive month, resulting in a projected $530 million budget surplus, Idaho Gov. Brad Little said Friday.

The Republican governor said that September revenue came in $33 million ahead of what had been forecast, bolstered by individual income tax collections of nearly 40% more than last year.

Idaho tax revenue overall is 10% more this fiscal year than last year, despite the coronavirus pandemic, which has now killed more than 500 residents.

“The once-in-a-century pandemic was not part of our budget forecast for this fiscal year," Little said. “But despite all the changes since March, I'm happy to tell Idahoans that our state budget and Idaho's economy are strong, and we are well-positioned to handle the ongoing impacts of the highly contagious and damaging COVID-19 virus in our state.”

The current fiscal year started in July, and Little said the big decisions about how to handle any surplus will be made when the part-time Legislature returns to the Statehouse in January.

Little attributed the surplus in part to conservative budgeting and regulation cuts. The surplus is also being bolstered by a nearly $100 million cut to state agencies and an additional nearly $100 million cut to public schools made earlier this year.

Little has used some of the $1.25 billion Idaho received from the federal government in coronavirus rescue money to replace the cut to the education budget. He also said rescue money has been distributed to state agencies that were cut.

He said that of the $1.25 billion, $130 million remains.

Idaho’s unemployment reached nearly 12% this year when Little issued a stay-at-home order after COVID-19 entered the state.

He started reopening the state in stages in April, and unemployment has dropped to 4.2%. But with the reopening has come an increase in coronavirus infections and deaths.

Johns Hopkins University reports that Idaho through Thursday has more than 46,000 infections and 503 deaths. Modeling of current infections by the University of Idaho indicates that a wave of new infections and potential deaths could peak late this month.

“The numbers are way too high, and we're doing all we can to urge people to do the right thing,” the governor said.

Little, who wore a face covering, encouraged other residents to do the same to ensure schools and businesses can remain open. He has not issued a statewide mask mandate, though 11 counties and nine cities have local mandates.

He also wasn't in a favor of a broad mandate involving schools, noting all 115 school districts are either open for in-person instruction or have a hybrid model that includes remote learning.

“A categorical solution I don't believe is the answer,” Little said, adding people in the individual communities have to roll up their sleeves to work on their specific problems. “In these areas where they are really on top of this issue, they are going to manage it. It is not going to be easy.”

Idaho is among the country’s fastest-growing states in terms of population, and budget experts say that influx of money is also likely contributing positively to the state's budget.