Myths about the Idaho economy continue to be spread about the media.
When the author was a leader within the Idaho Legislature, such as former Idaho Sen. Russ Fulcher, these misstatements would require a correction.
First, the unemployment data that Fulcher questions in his April 27 guest opinion comes from the Idaho Department of Labor, a state agency that Fulcher helped govern. The numbers are collected according to guidelines of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and are fed into national statistics. The professional economists in the Idaho Department of Labor are well aware of the limitations of unemployment as a measure of the economy.
Though many of us mourn the loss, our natural resource industries are no longer the sole or most important generator of “true wealth.” According to the University of Idaho’s Indicators website, natural resource industries directly account for only 5.7 percent of Idaho’s jobs in 2014. However, basic industries that bring new dollars into Idaho also include manufacturing, export services, tourism services to out-of-state visitors and even retiree pensions.
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For many years, services have provided roughly 7 of 10 new jobs for Idaho and the U.S. Nor are all service jobs low-paying ones that “trade haircuts.” Fulcher might want to show respect to the 33,700 employees in professional and business services, the 28,700 jobs in wholesale trade, the 5,600 in management, the 3,200 in utility services, the 43,200 jobs in public administration, or the 22,000 workers in finance and insurance. These service sector jobs are among the highest-paying in Idaho. Each of these sectors have average wages greater than the average goods-producing wage of $46,710 in 2015.
Lastly, economic studies show that it is not in Idaho’s best interests to take over management of federal lands. This would result in a net loss of important jobs in rural Idaho, cause a decline in the quality of land management for purposes like ecosystem services, or even recreation, and leave Idaho entirely responsible for potentially huge wildfire fighting costs. Citing wildly inappropriate analogies and hyberbolic potential outcomes does not add to the public debate.
If Fulcher truly has compassion for the working poor of Idaho, there are several changes that he should support. Raising the state minimum wage rate by a dollar an hour per year for three to five years would be a good start. Such a law would provide clear, gradual change for business owners, allowing them to adapt and minimize job losses, even while increasing the take-home pay of the working poor of Idaho.
Increased funding for professional and technical education programs, and for all education, would increase worker productivity, and thus wages. Expanding Medicaid would create thousands of jobs for caregivers, reduce county costs and create a health care safety net for many low-income Idahoans. Investing in transportation improvements that shorten travel times of both people and products is important for a relatively isolated rural state.
While the ideology of the Sagebrush Rebellion may have intuitive appeal to some, it is not among the rational and proven roads toward prosperity.
Richard Gardner is an economist consulting under the name Bootstrap Solutions. He worked a decade each for the Idaho Division of Financial Management and the Idaho Rural Partnership.