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It’s official — Idaho ends budget year with record surplus of nearly $900 million

The state of Idaho closed the books on the 2021 budget year on June 30 with a record surplus of nearly $900 million on hand, Gov. Brad Little announced Tuesday.

Now that June revenue numbers are finalized — and again beat state forecasts — Idaho officials know that they closed out the 2021 fiscal year with a surplus of about $893.4 million. That’s even better than things looked just over a month ago, when state officials were expecting a surplus of about $809 million 11 months into the fiscal year (Idaho runs on a fiscal year, or budget year, that runs from July 1 to June 30).

Overall, the state set several budget and revenue records during the just-completed fiscal year.

For the first time in Idaho history, state revenues surpassed $5 billion in one fiscal year, setting a new record in terms of dollars.

Compared to the previous years, revenue grew by 24.2%. That represents the largest increase in revenue for any year that records are available, Little’s office said.

The month of May was the largest revenue month in state history, as revenues beat the forecast by $580 million.

What’s the reason for the giant surplus? In simplest terms, revenues are up and greatly outperformed the state forecasts. Income tax filings beat forecasts by $469 million and sales tax revenues were up $166 million over projections.

“Idaho’s economic numbers show even in the middle of a global pandemic, conservative governing works,” Little said in a press release. “We have worked hard to curb government spending while providing tax relief and making investments where they count. We are seeing the impact of those conservative principles in action.”

What does the surplus mean for Idaho?

The surplus means Idaho will have extra money available for one-time spending on projects that may not have been anticipated a year ago. But many of the proposals and decisions won’t come until the 2022 legislative session begins in January.

In late June, Idaho Division of Financial Management administrator Alex Adams told the Idaho Capital Sun that Little would work with legislators over the upcoming months to develop proposals for the surplus.

Little and Adams didn’t spoil any secrets, but they have hinted that some of the money is likely to be returned via tax cuts and some will likely be invested in Idaho’s K-12 public school system, along with other one-time capital and infrastructure projects.

“It means we are in a good position; it means we have the ability to do some substantial investments we wouldn’t do otherwise,” Adams said in a June 25 interview. “But we have to be pretty careful about not outdriving our headlights with the ongoing portion and not make bad long-term decisions with good short-term news.”

But at least one Democratic state senator says the surplus isn’t quite the good news that it appears because the Legislature failed to cut property taxes or invest in full-day kindergarten during the marathon 2021 legislative session. Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said in a June 30 statement that the state should have invented in child care, cut property taxes by 33%, raised the minimum wage and set aside money to help employers cover a portion of the cost and paid for full-day kindergarten (whereas currently the state only funds half-day kindergarten, which is optional for families).

“Never has a legislature taken so long to do so little, and to do so much harm to the people of this state,” Burgoyne said in a written statement.

Although specifics may not be coming until early 2022, in the meantime, state budget officials will release a new revenue forecast in August. State agencies and departments will submit their proposed budgets for the 2023 budget year by Sept. 1.


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COVID-19 cases increasing in Idaho, Magic Valley

TWIN FALLS — The number of people testing positive for COVID-19 is on the rise in the Magic Valley and throughout Idaho.

Cases in the Magic Valley steadily decreased from January through mid-June before the region began experiencing an uptick a few weeks ago, said Logan Hudson, public health division administrator for the South Central Public Health District.

“Over the last two to three weeks, we’ve seen almost three times as many cases on average per day as we were seeing in the middle of June,” Hudson said.

The state has experienced a similar increase. All of the key COVID-19 indicators the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare monitors are heading in the wrong direction, department director Dave Jeppesen said in a media briefing Tuesday.

DREW NASH, TIMES-NEWS 

Passengers, alongside TSA employees, are seen abiding by the mandatory mask mandate inside airports Monday, July 19, 2021, at the Magic Valley Regional Airport in Twin Falls.

This includes an increase in the state’s seven-day moving average of cases per 100,000 people from 3.3 in early July to 8.2 as of Monday.

Additionally, the state’s COVID-19 positivity rate has increased from 2.8% about a month ago to 4.3%. Meanwhile, the number of long-term care facilities in Idaho with active COVID-19 cases has increased from 14 to 21 over the last few weeks.

Most concerning, Jeppesen said, is the increase in the number of people hospitalized and in the ICU due to the virus. According to the state’s online COVID-19 dashboard, 122 Idahoans were hospitalized on July 16 due to the virus, which is up from less than 70 in mid-June.

Nearly 99% of the people who have been hospitalized or have died from the virus since January were not fully vaccinated, according to information shared at Tuesday’s media briefing.

“This has really become a pandemic for those that are unvaccinated,” Jeppesen said.

This rise in cases coincides with the confirmation of the presence of the COVID-19 Delta variant in Idaho. This variant is more transmissible than the original strain of the virus and its other variants.

The South Central Public Health District announced in a July 15 press release the confirmation of the first case of this variant in Twin Falls County.

While this is the only confirmed case in the region, Hudson said it’s likely the majority of positive cases in the Magic Valley are of this variant. Not all COVID-19 testing providers are equipped to test for this specific variant, so its presence may be difficult to pin down, Hudson said.

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told a Senate committee Tuesday that the variant accounts for an estimated 83% of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

In addition to the presence of this variant, Hudson attributes the recent uptick in cases to people gathering for the Fourth of July holiday. Hudson anticipates case numbers will continue to increase before dropping and then rising again in the fall, similarly to last year.

“I do think that this is going to be the natural ebb and flow of this thing until it’s either gone through everybody and we have so much immunity in our communities … or people are vaccinated and it really has nowhere to go,” Hudson said.

Due to the number of people vaccinated, when case numbers peak, it likely won’t reach the same heights as last year. For example, the average number of new cases the health district is recording per day is in the 20s. This is down from the 50 to 100 new cases per day the district averaged last July.

While vaccines have proven to be effective in keeping these case numbers down, the Magic Valley and the state of Idaho is lagging behind the national average in vaccination rates.

According to the department of health and welfare’s dashboard, about 45% of Idahoans who are eligible for the vaccine — meaning those who are 12 years and older — are fully vaccinated. Nationwide, nearly 57% of eligible people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated.

The number of vaccine doses the health district administers weekly has slowed dramatically, Hudson said. But health officials continue to hold weekly vaccine clinics at all of the district’s offices in the Magic Valley, while also looking for other ways to offer doses to people who aren’t vaccinated.

Within the past few weeks, the district has created a form available on its website that groups of five or more people can fill out to schedule a visit from the district’s mobile vaccine clinic.

Hudson said it’s up to residents to decide whether or not to get vaccinated, but it’s the health district’s responsibility to make sure people at least have the opportunity to make that decision.

“It’s our job to make sure their excuse can’t be, ‘I never had the chance,’” Hudson said.

PHOTOS: Coronavirus cases in Idaho


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Health District urges residents to take precautions after rabid bat discovered in Blaine County

BLAINE COUNTY — A bat caught in Blaine County tested positive for rabies Tuesday. This is the first bat this year to test positive for rabies in south central Idaho.

The virus can cause a fatal disease in both people and their pets. The South Central Public Health District reminds residents to take precautions around bats and make sure their dogs, cats and horses are vaccinated for rabies.

“Bat bites are extremely small and hard to see. Any suspected exposure should be taken seriously as rabies is nearly always fatal,” said Tanis Maxwell, SCPHD Epidemiology Program Manager. “If you have contact with a bat, or find one in your home while you were sleeping it’s important you contact your health care provider right away and ask about treatment”.

Bats play an important role in the ecosystem and most do not carry rabies. If you see a bat, please give it plenty of space. Do not try to touch, kill or trap the bat unless you are concerned someone came into contact with the animal. Only attempt a bat capture if you can do it safely and avoid direct contact with the animal at all times.

If you have contact with a bat and need it tested, please call 208-737-5912 or 208-737-5971 to speak with a Health District epidemiologist. Do not bring live bats into health district offices.

While most bats are harmless and do not carry rabies, they are the only animal in Idaho to naturally carry the virus. Most animals, including household pets, can become exposed to the virus by playing with sick bats.

To protect yourself from rabies:

  • Do not touch a bat with your bare hands. Be very suspicious of any bat active during daylight hours.
  • If a bat attacks you seek medical attention immediately, save the bat in a container without touching it, and contact your district health department to arrange for rabies testing.
  • Always vaccinate your pets, including horses. Pets may encounter bats outdoors or in the home.
  • Bat-proof your home or cabin by plugging all holes in the siding and maintain tight-fitting screens on windows. Bats can enter through holes the size of a quarter. Typically bat-proofing is best after most bats have migrated away in the fall.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) shoots against Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton during the second half of Game 6 of basketball's NBA Finals Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)


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‘Extremely appropriate and proper’: Barracks named after Black WWII soldier who made Idaho home

He was shot and wounded by German soldiers in Italy. Led 25 of his fellow Black infantrymen through German bunkers and machine gun nests. Took heavy machine gun and mortar fire as the men in his platoon died around him. He withstood close calls with hand grenades and evaded death throughout World War II.

For Lt. Vernon Baker’s bravery while the world was at war, he received the Distinguished Service Cross — the second highest honor for heroism for the Army. He was only one of nine Black soldiers to receive the recognition during the war.

But because Baker was Black, the highest honor — the Medal of Honor — would be out of reach for him for years after he saved American lives and helped bring down the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan.

That would finally change in 1997, when Baker received the Medal of Honor from President Bill Clinton at the White House. He would become the only Black service member to ever personally receive the honor for service during that war. He was 77 at the time.

Now Baker’s contributions to the country are being posthumously recognized in a new way. On Tuesday, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held at Gowen Field to name a new set of barracks, Building 930, after him.

“He’s a genuine American hero, Lt. Baker,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Garshak during the ceremony. “Not only for what he did, his heroic actions on the battlefield, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor some 50 years after he had earned it, but also because of his unfailing determination to put honor and his country above self.”

Garshak called the recognition for Baker, who moved to Idaho in 1986, “extremely appropriate and proper.”

Lt. Vernon Baker’s story of bravery and sacrifice during WWII

Baker wasn’t originally from Idaho — instead, he was born in 1919 in Cheyenne, Wyoming. His parents died in a car crash when he was young, and he considered his grandfather who helped raise him the most influential person in his life.

He enlisted in the U.S. Army six months before the United States was drawn into WWII by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor during that infamous day in world history: Dec. 7, 1941.

He attended basic training in Texas, and he earned his commission as a second lieutenant from the Officer Candidate School on Jan. 11, 1943.

In June 1941, Baker’s life would change forever as his division deployed to Italy. Throughout the war, he faced fierce fighting with the enemy, being shot in the arm by a German soldier four months after being deployed. He was hospitalized for months before rejoining his unit.

Photo by Christina Lords/Idaho Capital Sun 

A plaque detailing Lt. Vernon Baker’s military service was installed at Building 930 with new barracks at Gowen Field.

On April 5, 1945, Baker led 25 of his fellow servicemen through a maze of German bunkers and machine gun nests near Viareggio, Italy, Maj. Megan Kiska explained Tuesday, to a crowd of nearly 200 community members, current and former state legislators and National Guard service members gathered to celebrate the ribbon cutting.

Baker’s platoon reached the south side of a ravine about 250 yards from Castle Aghinolfi, a German stronghold during the war.

“Baker observed a telescope pointing out of a slit,” Kiska said. “He crawled under the opening and shot two German soldiers, killing them both. He then came upon a well-camouflaged machine gun nest, killing the two-man crew inside it.”

The German soldiers attacked and threw a hand grenade at Baker’s company commander. Baker shot the attacker twice as he attempted to escape.

“He then blasted the entrance of another dugout with a hand grenade,” Kiska said, recalling Baker’s bravery. “He shot one German soldier who emerged from inside, and threw another grenade into the dugout and killed two more German soldiers.”

German soldiers then began inflicting heavy casualties on Baker’s platoon, and as another U.S. soldier provided cover for him, Baker destroyed two more machine gun posts to allow his platoon to evacuate the dangerous area.

Kiska said 17 of Baker’s men were killed in the firefight.

Fight for freedom continued at home after the war

When he came home, he faced a United States that didn’t always live up to its highest ideals, said Jerome Mapp, the city of Caldwell’s planning director. Mapp was instrumental in the nomination process for naming the barracks after Baker. He worked with state Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, and Army veteran and former state Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, to ensure Baker’s legacy will continue on.

Black soldiers often faced an oppressive situation when they returned home, Mapp said. They had to fight for equal opportunities for employment, for voting rights, for access to the GI Bill, for their human dignity.

“We have an opportunity to dedicate and name this building after him,” Mapp said. “I am thankful this day that we are honoring the lasting legacy of 1st Lt. Baker. For those who enter this building, we will have the opportunity to learn about him, his leadership and the sacrifices that he made.”

Baker, who went on to also serve in the Korean War, retired from the Army in 1968. He also received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his service. He then worked for the Red Cross and continued serving others by counseling military families.

Honoring Black WWII veterans

In the early 1990s, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Army commissioned a research team from Shaw University to investigate why none of the 433 service members who received the Medal of Honor for service during WWII were Black.

“The study concluded a climate of racism had prevented Black service members from receiving the proper recognition for their heroic acts of courage during the war,” Kiska said.

The Army advanced the names of seven Black soldiers, including Baker’s, for the long-deserved recognition.

Baker eventually made a home in St. Maries, drawn to North Idaho’s pristine wilderness and hunting opportunities. A statue of an elk was unveiled in front of the barracks during the ceremony to honor Baker’s love of the great outdoors.

Baker died from complications of brain cancer when he was 90 years old, and he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

His descendants and family, including his wife, Heidy, were in attendance at Gowen Field on Tuesday.

“I’m so grateful I was able to work with Jerome to help make his vision a reality,” Wintrow said in a press release. “It’s so important to honor and recognize the achievements of Idahoans, especially Idahoans of color, whose contributions have not always been front and center in our state history. I hope this will lead more people to learn about Vernon Baker’s legacy and acts of bravery, helping keep the story of this American hero alive for decades to come.”

PHOTOS: Vietnam Veteran Motorcycle Ride


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