Idaho governor: Long-term projects a priority

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Mar. 19—BOISE — Idaho Gov. Brad Little laid out his priorities for the next round of federal stimulus funding Thursday, saying the money should be invested in long-term projects that benefit future generations.

Nearly $5 billion will flow into Idaho from the American Rescue Plan Act, which Congress approved last week.

That includes more than $2 billion in direct payments to businesses and individuals. Cities and counties will get an estimated $576 million in discretionary funds.

The state itself expects to collect $1.188 billion in discretionary funding for COVID-related needs, plus $126 million for COVID-related capital projects.

State and local agencies will receive another $981 million in direct payments. That includes about $440 million for public schools and $208 million for higher education, as well as additional funding for everything from Meals on Wheels services to substance abuse treatment programs and child care grants.

This latest round of money is in addition to the roughly $9 billion that flowed into the state from the various coronavirus relief packages Congress approved last year.

To put the payments in context, Idaho’s entire general fund budget next year will be about $4.2 billion.

It’s up to the Legislature to decide how to spend the $1.3 billion in state discretionary and capital funds, as well as much or all of the $981 million in direct agency payments.

Nevertheless, during a 30-minute news conference Thursday, Little encouraged them to use the money for long-term, high-impact projects.

“We must be thoughtful and deliberative in our approach,” he said. “I believe we should prioritize investments for our children and grandchildren, since they’re the ones who will be left with the burden of paying off (the federal debt). I’ll push for the funds to go to long-range investments that will serve to better their chances and opportunities.”

The governor also recommended that the money be used for one-time projects rather than creating ongoing programs that Idaho taxpayers will have to pay for once the federal dollars run out.

The deadlines in the American Rescue Plan lend themselves to a thoughtful approach, Little said. Unlike the coronavirus funds the state received last year, which had to be spent by the end of 2020, this next round of funding doesn’t have to be spent until the end of 2024.

There are some exceptions to that, though. Some of the public school funding, for example, must be allocated in the next 30 to 60 days, although it doesn’t have to be spent until the end of 2023.

Similarly, there’s a tight deadline for distributing some of the local government discretionary funds.

Of the $576 million slated for local governments, $347 million will go directly to counties, based on population. The nine largest cities in the state — including Lewiston — will split another $125 million in direct payments.

Another $104 million, however, will come to the state and then be disbursed to the remaining 191 municipalities in Idaho. That distribution will be based on population, but can’t exceed 75 percent of a community’s most recent annual budget.

“We have to get that money out to them within 30 days of receipt,” Little said. “We have to (establish) a process for sending that out. I’ve been in meetings with legislators. I think we’re supposed to have a plan in a day or so.”

It may take a month or so before the U.S. Treasury issues guidance on exactly what the state and local discretionary funds can be used for. Nevertheless, Alex Adams, the governor’s budget director, said the restrictions will likely be similar to the first round of relief funds last year.

That means the money must be used to address the economic and fiscal impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. For example, it would include the $10,000 small-business relief grants the state approved last year.

In addition, Adams said the American Rescue Plan authorizes three new uses of the discretionary funds: premium payments for essential workers, state or local government revenue reductions, and infrastructure investments in water, sewer and broadband projects.

“I think you’ll see us explore pretty hardily the infrastructure side,” he said. “The governor views broadband as the key to economic commerce, to telehealth, to remote work and distance education.”

Idaho used some of its coronavirus relief funds for broadband projects last year, Adams said. But because the money had to be spent by the end of the year, “we could really only do the most shovel-ready of shovel-ready projects, not necessarily the most needed project.”

“There are areas of the state where getting reliable broadband will be a multi-year proposition,” he said. “The resources and time frame (in the American Rescue Plan) are more conducive to meeting those needs.”

Little also held out hope that some of the money can be used to “turn up the volume” on the state’s efforts to help kids who experienced learning loss because of school disruptions last year.

“A year from today, I’m hoping they’ll be caught up,” he said.

Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.