Idaho’s House speaker presses labor chief on nation's worst wages

The Spokesman-ReviewJanuary 3, 2014 

Idaho has the lowest wages in the United States.

The Famous Potatoes state ranks 50th for average annual wage, per-capita income and wage increases since 2007, according to the Idaho Department of Labor. It also has the greatest percentage of minimum-wage workers in America.

After hearing those figures this week as they reviewed Idaho’s economic outlook, state legislative leaders said it’s time to figure out how to reverse that “dubious distinction” for the state.

“I don’t think anybody’s proud of that No. 1,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.

He quizzed the state’s new Labor Department director, Ken Edmunds, about why the state ranks so poorly. “We need to understand, I think, as a state this phenomenon here, so that we can address this as we shape policy to improve these numbers,” Bedke said.

Edmunds responded, “We’ve been creating jobs because of a need to create jobs and bring the unemployment rate down, but now we need to … push for more job creation in skilled areas” that pay more.

That, he said, will require improvements in education: “Employers are saying they are not getting the employees they need at any level, as far as skills.” That applies to recent high school graduates through highly skilled jobs in computer science, Edmunds said, adding, “We have to change our approach.”

Edmunds just started as the state’s labor chief in November; he previously served on the state Board of Education.

Bedke called his answer “thought-provoking” and said, “I think it’s incumbent upon all policymakers to pause and listen to what we’ve just been told.”

The exchange came as Idaho is poised for a legislative session that launches Monday with school funding and improvements as its top issue. Gov. Butch Otter convened an education stakeholders task force that over the past year and a half held hearings around the state and endorsed a slate of sweeping reforms. The reforms include restoring tens of millions cut from schools during the recession, to boosting teacher pay and reforming how the state’s schools operate.

“I think that will be our blueprint going forward,” Bedke said, calling the school reform and funding issue “head and shoulders above the rest” of the many pressing issues facing Idaho lawmakers as they convene.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, agreed. The Legislature’s top challenge, he said, is “going to be finding money for education reforms.”

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Betsy Z. Russell: bzrussell@gmail.com

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