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Next Commerce chief must ‘sell’ Idaho, Little says

Brad Little on Idaho’s economic goals

Lt. Gov. Brad Little on priorities for the Department of Commerce and Director Jeff Sayer's successor.
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Lt. Gov. Brad Little on priorities for the Department of Commerce and Director Jeff Sayer's successor.

Outgoing Idaho Director of Commerce Jeff Sayer gave Gov. Butch Otter a little wiggle room when he agreed to stay on until the end of 2015 before stepping down to start a business consultancy in the private sector.

As he does for other major appointments, Otter tapped Lt. Gov. Brad Little to head a search committee to whittle applicants for the director position down to a short list.

Little said he must finish appointing a search committee before interviewing potential successors.

Q: What qualifications are you looking for in a Commerce director?

A: You want somebody who can sell the state of Idaho, who can get along with local economic development people. You want somebody who can administer the department, that can manage a budget.

Q: What do you mean by “selling the state of Idaho?”

A: For incoming businesses, their contact is the director of the Department of Commerce. The director is the face of Idaho in many instances.

Q: Who’s going to be on the search committee?

A: I’ll chair the committee. I know Mark Warbis, who handles commerce for the governor, and two or three cabinet members will be on it. There will be three or four from around the state. We’d like to get a local economic development person.

Q: By “local economic development person,” do you mean from the Treasure Valley?

A: Maybe, but it could be from the local level anywhere around the state. Roads, bridges, sewer, water and zoning are all critical issues for expanding, existing businesses or for businesses coming in. We have a role at the state level, but the governor and I prefer to serve as a kind of service agency for local economic development people.

Q: How does Commerce interact with economic development offices, such as our local example, the Boise Valley Economic Partnership?

A: Once in a while, companies will come to Commerce and say, “We need 30,000 square feet of warehouse space, 20 machinists, power, natural gas, water and access to rail.” We’ll shotgun it out to economic development outfits across the state, and they’ll submit their best recommendations.

Q: How many applications has the state received?

A: Right now it’s just at three or four. The thing about this job is, with the qualifications we’re asking for, applicants are probably earning good money where they are.

Q: Does the governor prefer either in-state or out-of-state applicants?

A: It helps to be familiar with Idaho. Someone with a broad understanding of all the issues in Idaho would be great, but understanding everything going on from Ashton to Bonner’s Ferry would be a tall order. Idaho’s a big state. Jeff was from eastern Idaho. He went with myself and the governor a lot to northern Idaho to familiarize himself with the area.

Q: Sayer made news recently when he said that the state should prioritize funding workforce development programs instead of cutting taxes. What was your reaction to those comments?

A: I don’t know that he meant it was an either-or situation, even if it came out that way. The governor and Legislature have already agreed that the next available dollar will fund the governor’s education task force’s recommendations. There’s some things we need to do with workforce even above that. Jeff feels that’s very important.

Q: So, no tax cuts in the near future?

A: I think a tax reduction is still a good idea. Idaho is in an unenviable position, because three neighboring states have no income tax, and there’s states with no sales tax. We don’t have gaming to finance state government like Nevada has. We don’t have oil and coal like Wyoming does. Jeff reflected what he hears from businesses: that a little decrease in tax rates might be offset by improving the talent pool for business. I don’t think that was far off of our priority of where we spend our next dollar.

Q: Will the discussion about cutting taxes be part of the interview process?

A: It probably wouldn’t be.

Q: When do you plan to run for governor?

A: There’s not a vacancy right now.

Q: But if there were to be in the future?

A: You don’t agree to be lieutenant governor if you don’t think you can be governor. That hasn’t changed.

Responses edited for length and clarity. Zach Kyle: 208-377-6464 , @IDS_ZachKyle

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