Megan Ronk isn’t ready to announce any major economic development proposals yet. But Ronk, whom. Gov. Butch Otter appointed to succeed Idaho Commerce Department Director Jeff Sayer in January, says she’s looking at possible complements to the business-tax break enacted in 2014, the Tax Reimbursement Incentive, which provides rebates of up to 30 percent of payroll, sales and corporate income taxes for up to 15 years.
Ronk, a 36-year-old Mountain Home native, is paid $130,000 per year. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the College of Idaho and her master’s from Thunderhead School of Global Management in Tucson, Ariz., both in business management.
She and her husband, Jayson Ronk, are entrenched in Idaho political and business worlds. Ronk was executive director of the Idaho Meth Project, a nonprofit founded and chaired by Otter’s wife, Lori, before she joined Commerce in 2011. She also worked as a strategic projects manager for Blue Cross of Idaho and as a policy adviser to former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.
Jayson Ronk is director of state government affairs for Micron Technology Inc. He was Otter’s campaign manager in the 2014 election and is a former vice president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry. He is also a former executive director of the Idaho GOP.
The Ronks live in Meridian with their sons, Simon, 5, and Harrison, 2.
Q: What does your calendar look like?
A: I’m really the sales arm for the state, whether that is selling the state to existing Idaho companies looking to expand, to new companies who might look to Idaho for an expansion or relocation, to our foreign partners to promote exports. Last week, I was in in Lewiston, Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Rexburg and Sun Valley, speaking at events and working with economic developers and local governments.
Q: How do you interact with companies?
A: I try to be very proactive and intentional in making sure our existing Idaho companies understand the resources available. As we look at new companies, it depends on the client and how quickly their project is moving that gauges the level of interaction. If a project is moving quickly, I may interact with a CEO or CFO on a day-to-day basis. Frankly, sometimes it takes years, or there’s a spurt of activity, and then it goes quiet for several months.
Q: Your word choice of “client” seems deliberate. How do you view your relationship with companies calling your office?
A: I view it like any other business-to-business relationship. We’re here to serve and make the case for why they should do business here. We are here to meet their needs and their timeline with the resources within our sphere of influence to support their decision to do business in Idaho.
Idaho continues to have great strength in manufacturing. Aerospace becomes a part of that sector. I love that we actually make things in Idaho.
Megan Ronk, Idaho Department of Commerce director.
Q: Is there room for the Commerce director to disagree with the governor?
A: The governor is my boss. I’m a member of the cabinet. The governor is certainly open to new ideas. I don’t know if “disagreement” is the right word. Ultimately, he’s the boss and the final authority, but I think he has great respect for the agency directors to make decisions and bring new ideas to the table.
Q: Do you work with lawmakers on policy issues?
A: When there are issues related to incentives, broadband deployment, tax policy or a whole number of issues the Legislature discusses and they proactively seek my input. And I regularly seek out their input and perspective.
Q: To what extent are big-ticket proposals such as the tax-reimbursement incentive vetted by both the governor’s office and lawmakers before heading to the floor?
A: We like to make sure there are no surprises, that when we’re developing new policy we’re including legislators early on and getting their feedback before bringing it forward.
Q: Kenneth Edmunds, director of the Idaho Department of Labor, turned some heads by making comments that the state should give workforce development higher priority than tax cuts. Where does workforce development rank in your list of concerns?
A: As we work with companies and site selectors, workforce and talent is certainly one of the key issues that we continually get questions about. It’s not unique to Idaho. It’s a national issue. Talent may be critically important, but companies are still very interested in business costs, taxes and infrastructure.
The Department of Commerce’s signature legislation, the Tax Reimbursement Incentive, has awarded tax breaks to 13 Idaho companies and 13 companies expanding or relocating here since launching in July 2014.
Q: What was your role as chief operations officer since your promotion in 2013?
A: Jeff was a great mentor for me. He spent a lot of time working with companies and speaking to community groups. My role at that time was more on the operations side of the department, working with the fiscal staff, working on legislative initiatives, working our budget through the process. I was also really involved in the implementation side of rules within the department.
For instance, the TRI, once the actual program had to be developed, I worked closely with our team to figure out the process for how we’d evaluate applications and a framework to accomplish that. My role has been on budget, policy and implementation. That’s made my transition to this role easy from perspective of I know the projects we’ve worked with from a very detailed, policy level.
Q: Do you expect the department to bring forward new large- or small-scale economic development proposals?
A: We’re looking at all of those options. We understand the current tools we have available — the TRI, infrastructure grants, the Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission [fund]. None of them in and of themselves are one-size-fits-all incentives. I’m not ready to get into specifics yet.
Q: How will you be a different director?
A: I think I will spend more time focused on opportunities for international trade. That’s an area where I have strength and understanding based on my field of study, but also some of my private-sector experience and work in foreign countries. I think some of our small and medium-size companies have great opportunities to export across the world.
Tourism continues to be a strong component of our economy, especially for some of our rural communities that traditionally relied on mining and timber. [Helping them] make that jump and marketing themselves as tourism destinations is something we can really impact at the state level.
Q: Are any criticisms of the state’s tax break program fair or warranted?
A: Most of the criticisms I’ve seen don’t understand the mechanics of how the program works. When I’ve been able to explain it one-on-one and help them understand the rigorous evaluation each goes through, vetting by the Economic Advisory Council, and the fact that it is a performance-based tool, that has alleviated many people’s concerns.
Q: Boise company Employers Resource sued the state in March, challenging the Tax Reimbursement Incentive as unconstitutional. Does the suit threaten the program?
A: It’s pending litigation. I can’t comment.
Q: You’ve answered questions from me and others about whether your ties to Gov. Butch Otter and his wife played a role in your appointment by saying you’ve earned the promotion with your track record. To what extent have you had to answer questions about your political ties?
A: It’s been insignificant. Maybe it’s just something people don’t bring up to me face to face, but I have felt nothing but support from business, elected officials, from economic development partners in the state. I’ve felt no resistance.
Q: Have you ever faced additional challenges or prejudice because you are a woman?
A: No. I’ve felt no limits in this role so far.
Q: How much do you and your husband talk about business and politics at home?
A: It’s very limited. We have a respect for each others’ work. We mostly talk about family and kids, not so much about work and politics.
Q: Are there areas you’ve learned not to talk about, or that you can’t talk about?
A: I take the confidentiality of the projects that I work on very seriously, and that extends to friends and family. I have a letter on file with the governor’s office recognizing my husband’s position at Micron. If there were any issues where Micron had to directly engage with the department, I’d be removed from those discussions. Jayson respects that as well.