Brad Little now has two major addresses - inaugural and state of the state - under his belt as Idaho governor, and they might have given a focused indication of what he will do.
But not exactly. We’re probably going to have to keep watching to figure that out.
The speeches were capable, professional and appropriate. But they were not revelatory; he almost seemed to be holding back rather than expounding on how he thought things should be.
The inaugural was a hello, a thanks and a pointer to the upcoming state of the state speech, delivered as usual on the first day of the Idaho Legislature regular session.
That speech, at about 4,000 words, was shorter than all but one of predecessor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s speeches (and maybe even shorter than that one, from 2017). But otherwise, beyond a slight difference in tone - attributable to different personalities - Little’s address was a lot like most of Otter’s. Little, of course, was present to watch and learn from his predecessor; he was on the podium just behind Otter while most were delivered.
Some of Otter’s earlier speeches leaned heavy on ideology: free markets, limited government, Washington is awful, etc. The last of those came in 2011, and since then Otter - while of course never leaving his philosophy behind - spent most of his SOS speeches talking about policy specifics.
Senate Democratic leader Michelle Stennett was quoted as saying of the Little speech, “I did a happy dance. Because really, much of what he said is something that as Democrats we have been talking about and trying to pass for 10 years — at least as long as I’ve been here. ... Education, the highlights of his speech, are things that we have been working very hard toward.”
That suggests this speech marked a clear change in direction from the last gubernatorial dozen years (at least). Maybe that will materialize, but the speech provided little evidence.
I asked one veteran observer of these speeches what differences he saw; he cited a higher visibility for the first lady and representatives of the state’s Indian tribes, and no real Washington-bashing. But that was about all.
Consider education, to which Little devoted a large chunk of his speech. He had quite a few specifics on offer and some policy changes, though nothing as prospectively dramatic as Otter’s recent proposal to upend the structure of Idaho higher education. But then, Otter has talked about education quite a bit too. In all of his last half-dozen speeches, at least, he devoted about as much discussion to education as Little did. Education accounted for almost a quarter of his longest address, in 2018. And he put his discussion of it in strong terms, as when he started in 2013 by saying, "Like you, my highest priority remains public schools."
The most-noted specific in Little’s speech: “On election day over 60% of voters approved Medicaid expansion. For months I made it clear I would honor the will of the people. I intend to work with you to implement Medicaid expansion using an Idaho approach. We need spring in our safety net so that there are multiple pathways for the gap population to move off Medicaid and onto private coverage.”
The first part seemed definitive enough, but what did the last part mean? Was he calling for work requirements, and if so what kind, or something else, or would that be a misreading? What are the parameters he would or would not accept? Little’s short statement on the subject was treated almost as a break from Otter, but Otter repeatedly (albeit unsuccessfully) tried various compromise approaches in the Medicaid-expansion area, up to and including 2018. Would Otter have said something much different about the Medicaid initiative if he were still governor today? Not a bad question.
How the Little Administration will differ from the Otter Administration, other than in personnel (locus of many changes) is something we’ll need more time to process.