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Idaho governor to propose tax cuts with $630 million surplus

by KEITH RIDLER Associated Press
| December 7, 2020 3:30 PM

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Gov. Brad Little said Monday that he plans to propose tax cuts and investments in transportation, education and water projects to lawmakers in January following another monthly revenue report that exceeded projections despite rising coronavirus infections and deaths.

The Republican governor in a statement spent little time trumpeting the budget numbers and his fiscal conservatism as he has in the past during live news conferences.

The latest numbers show a projected budget surplus of $630 million after November tax revenue came in $45 million higher than expected.

Year-to-date, state revenues are ahead of projections by nearly $170 million, or 10.6%.

Little warned that tax cuts and investments are threatened by the pandemic that could overwhelm hospitals with COVID-19 patients. Among those getting sick with the virus are health care workers, he said.

“Health and the economy are intertwined,” Little said. “Idahoans must choose to do a better job of wearing masks and avoiding gatherings with people outside their households if we are going to continue this trend.”

Little wears a mask in public but hasn't been able to persuade enough Idaho residents to follow his lead to slow the pandemic. He has declined to issue a statewide mask mandate.

More than 100,000 Idaho residents have been sickened and more than 1,000 have died. That's four to five times the annual number of flu and pneumonia deaths in the state.

“More COVID-19 transmission results in more COVID-19 hospitalizations and fewer available healthcare workers to care for the patients," Little said. "The result is diminished healthcare access for all of us, whether we have COVID or not.”

Healthcare officials have said they are running near capacity and that a potential surge of patients following Thanksgiving gatherings could lead to patients being turned away when they seek hospitalization. Positivity tests are already running at nearly 20%, well above the state's goal of less than 5%.

Idaho’s crisis plan for when hospitals hit capacity divides the sick into categories — prioritizing those with life-threatening illnesses or injuries who are expected to survive and giving only comfort care to those who aren’t.

Besides COVID-19 patients, heart attack and car-crash victims could be left without treatment if there isn’t room or no one is available, health care sector officials have said. If Idaho reaches that point, officials worry the economy could nosedive as residents get scared about leaving their homes.

The part-time Legislature returns to the Statehouse in January and lawmakers will take Little's proposed budget as a possible starting point while crafting their own.

Many other states face big budget cuts due to faltering economies caused by the pandemic. But Idaho is so far running a healthy surplus.

The state received $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief money to help shore up its finances.

Idaho residents and businesses also benefitted from the relief package that sent up to $1,200 to taxpayers as well as millions more for businesses so they could keep paying their workers.

Alex Adams, Little's budget chief, said budget officials continue to be surprised at the positive state revenue numbers month after month exceeding projections set before the pandemic hit.

He attributed much of that to “the considerable federal funds that are coming into the state.”

However, much of the money from the relief package has already been spent and the current fiscal year does not end until next summer. Congress is working on another coronavirus relief package, but it's not clear if one will pass.

Idaho is also among the country’s fastest-growing states in terms of population.