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Gov. Little says Idaho's economy is strong but areas need work

The governor also told community members that Idaho's prison incarceration rate is far too high.

Idaho's economy is strong, but more work is needed to shore up the state's transportation infrastructure and education and health care systems, Idaho Gov. Brad Little said Wednesday.

"I believe people and businesses are choosing to relocate or expand in Idaho because of how we respect the hard-earned money and the hard-earned efforts of our citizens and businesses," he said.

The Republican governor hit familiar themes in his speech to about 400 business people attending the Boise Metro Chamber event at J.R. Simplot Company's Jack's Urban Meeting Place, or JUMP.

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Little called J.R. Simplot, a billionaire potato entrepreneur who died in 2008, a mentor. He said Idaho should emulate Simplot's innovation and hard work to remain competitive and that part of that effort involves improving Idaho's education system from the pre-school level to the university level.

"Businesses large and small, wherever I go in Idaho, talk about the need for a better workforce as our state continues to modernize and expand," he said.

Little said that he and lawmakers during his first legislative session raised starting teacher pay, doubled the state's investment in literacy and increased college and vocational scholarships.

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He said the state's economic growth and opportunities appear promising but that there are difficult issues to resolve, including health care and the expansion of Medicaid following a voter-approved law. Idaho lawmakers earlier this year added on work requirements for people receiving Medicaid and other restrictions.

He said expanding Medicaid to an estimated 90,000 low-income residents will help with mental health and substance abuse challenges faced by state residents.

"A lot of these people who are going to qualify need those services," he said.

He also said the state has to deal with opioid addiction, noting he created a taskforce to study the problem. Idaho is among multiple states suing opioid makers contending they created the problem to boost profits.

"We are going to formulate a plan to where we get ahead of this scourge that is really everywhere in the United States," he said.

Regarding crime, Little said he could support loosening mandatory minimum sentences for some less severe crimes

"We have an incarceration rate that to me is way, way too high," he said.

He said the state in response is making investments in community re-entry centers, including funding three new centers in the state this year. The centers give offenders a place to go when they're released from prison and teach job skills.

Legislation earlier this year loosening mandatory minimum sentences for some drug trafficking offenses failed.