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'The state of the state is strong': Gov. Little gives 2021 State of the State Address as Idaho legislative session begins

"We’ve come a long way in our fight against the enemy virus, and with the arrival of a safe vaccine just a few weeks ago, the end of the battle is in sight."

BOISE, Idaho — Idaho Gov. Brad Little delivered the 2021 State of the State and Budget Address at 1 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 11. The address was given from a remote location.

The general public was not admitted into the governor's address, in compliance with Stage 2 of the Idaho Rebounds plan.

Little began the address by condemning the actions that took place on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol building, calling the events "dark".

"Hostility and violence are not an expression of your rights," Little said. "They are a violation of everyone else’s."

In 2021, the Idaho Statehouse will celebrate its 100th birthday, which Little said marks an appropriate time to let government and democracy shine.

One year ago, a global pandemic was not on anyone's radar. Little spoke of the struggles and hardships that have accompanied the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic throughout his address but said the state has come a long way in the fight against the virus.

"We’ve come a long way in our fight against the enemy virus, and with the arrival of a safe vaccine just a few weeks ago, the end of the battle is in sight," he said. "We’re in the home stretch, and together we will finish strong."

Little expressed gratitude to Idaho lawmakers for the work they did over the summer during the special session requested by him.

At the time of the address, over 1,500 Idahoans have lost their lives to COVID-19. Little held a moment of silence for those individuals and extended numerous thanks to Idaho's healthcare workers. 

"Throughout the pandemic, the women and men in scrubs have been nothing short of heroic," he said. "Idaho’s nurses, doctors, and health care workers put their own safety on the line, pulling extra shifts to care for the influx of COVID-19 patients in our hospitals."

The strain on Idaho hospitals from the COVID-19 pandemic has improved slightly after weeks of worsening conditions. Little expressed gratitude to Idaho's hospitals for continuing to share resources and prevent implementing crisis standards of care.

"Idaho’s hospitals continue to do an excellent job of sharing resources and shifting operations to prevent a crisis. They have also shared the reality of COVID-19. They are telling the stories of COVID-19 patients – the stories of people whose organs are shutting down from an aggressive disease; the stories of young, healthy people who ended up on life support; the stories of veterans who fought enemies overseas only to suffer from a new invisible enemy here in their community," Little said. "They are telling the stories of exhausted doctors and nurses caring for patients who cannot be with their families. The COVID-19 reality is heartbreaking."

In an attempt to relieve the burden on Idaho doctors, 1,100 nursing professionals were licensed. Idahoans were able to slow the spread of COVID-19 to allow Idaho hospitals to prepare for the winter season, where infection rates were expected to increase.

Once again, Little stressed the importance of personal responsibility during the pandemic. He also shared that the seven public health districts in Idaho "have my support" in navigating the pandemic.

Little shared several of his proudest fiscal achievements from 2020, including $300 million in grants for small businesses struggling during the pandemic, $126 million in reimbursement to Idaho property taxpayers, and $50 million to support remote working and learning.

Education investments increased by 16%, totaling nearly $300 million, according to the governor.

At the beginning of 2020, Gov. Little called for all state agencies to cut their budget by at least 1%, long before COVID-19 entered the Gem State. As a result, while other states are faced with cutting budgets by 20-40%, Idaho now possesses a large budget surplus.

"Our staged economic rebound plan had one goal – to protect lives and prevent a crisis in our hospitals while the economy could move forward," he said. "Businesses and places of worship in Idaho have been open longer than almost every other state during the pandemic. The statewide public health orders, guidelines, and recommended protocols we made available are for each one of us to choose to follow so Idaho can stay open."

Referring to 2020 as a "tornado, damaging and deadly", Little said he is eager to look to the future and continue Idaho's growth.

"There is an uplifting sense that we may be in the final lap of this race against COVID-19. The finish line is close, but the worst part of the pandemic may not be behind us," he said. "We cannot relent in our personal actions to protect everything and everyone we hold dear, especially in the critical weeks and months ahead."

Looking to the new year, Little announced his budget proposal entitled "Building Idaho's Future." This proposal calls for $450 million in tax relief to Idahoans, $295 million of which will be one-time relief and $160 million of which will be permanent.

"Curbing government spending and returning taxpayer dollars should be the perpetual mission of public servants," he said. "I look forward to working with my partners in the Legislature to get tax relief across the finish line for our citizens."

The proposal also allocates more money for local businesses in addition to the nearly $300 million allocated from the CARES Act, calling small businesses "the backbone of our entire way of life."

Transportation is also a priority of Little's proposed budget. Building Idaho's Future calls for $126 million to be allocated to state and local infrastructure and $80 million for future transportation funding.

"In Idaho, we grow and process most of our commodities, and getting those products down the road in a timely fashion is critical. In all parts of the state, major transportation projects continue to get pushed out further and further," he said. "One of the basic roles of government is to ensure a safe, connected system of roads and highways. We cannot ignore a growing problem that steals Idahoans’ time and threatens their safety and our economic prosperity."

State and local police are also expected to receive additional funding in 2021, according to Little's proposal, who stated he is proud that Idaho "backs the blue".

"While other places seek to defund the police, I am proud to say that Idaho defends the police," he added.

One of Idaho's most profitable fields, agriculture, is expected to receive $60 million in long-term water projects.

"In Idaho, agriculture remains a way of life. Last year, Idaho’s farmers, ranchers and allied businesses met a crisis with increased productivity, as they have done for generations," Little said. "Farmers gave Idahoans faith that empty grocery store shelves were just a matter of timing and not an issue of true scarcity. Idaho agriculture continued to feed the state, the nation, and the world."

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, nearly all Idaho students have partially or entirely returned to the classroom. Little, however, said he is dedicated to closing the achievement gap and ensuring all students have access to the tools needed to successfully learn remotely.

Primarily, Little is proposing the state make investments in literacy and internet connectivity. He is also proposing a $250 million investment in the "career ladder" for Idaho teachers.

The budget also bolsters Idaho's public health infrastructure, according to Little.

"I’m recommending funds to increase nursing capacity and also to address the shortage of physicians across Idaho," he said. "I also propose putting more than 250-million dollars toward our homestretch efforts to finish the fight against COVID-19."

Finally, Little unveiled his plans to work with State Controller Brandon Woolf on a new online resource designed to increase government transparency, calling it a "one-stop-shop" for civic engagement,

Little's third State of the State Address comes as the state of Idaho approaches 150,000 confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19. The COVID-19 death toll has surpassed 1,500 and the statewide positivity rate has increased once again.

Vaccinations in Idaho continue to be administered. As of Sunday morning, over 30,000 people have received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with more than 3,000 receiving their second dose.

In addition to the annual address, the Idaho Legislature will meet for the first time in the new year on Monday. In 2021, Idahoans can expect to hear discussion on coronavirus, property taxes, education, and roads and bridges among other issues.

One topic that will come up early in the session is the balance of power, specifically the governor's executive power when it comes to dealing with crises like the coronavirus pandemic. 

Ahead of the 2021 session, two Democratic state lawmakers filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Idaho Legislature and the Republican speaker of the House, Rep. Scott Bedke, claiming the Capital is unsafe for them and others with chronic health conditions because COVID-19 precautions are being ignored. 

Reps. Sue Chew (D-Boise) and Muffy Davis (D-Ketchum) filed the lawsuit asking a judge to order Bedke to allow lawmakers to participate remotely and provide other safety accommodations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to Chew and Davis, Bedke has refused to follow recommendations set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as guidelines from Little recommending facial coverings be worn when physical distance cannot be maintained.

To watch Gov. Little's address, click below: