State Politics

Group wants data to drive decisions on building Idaho economy

Gardner Co. chief Tommy Ahlquist, shown here leading a tour of the Eighth & Main building in 2014, is the organizing force behind the new policy group, Idaho 2020.
Gardner Co. chief Tommy Ahlquist, shown here leading a tour of the Eighth & Main building in 2014, is the organizing force behind the new policy group, Idaho 2020. doswald@idahostatesman.com

Consider the following: Idaho’s tight rules for public financing hinder investment. State GDP lags behind similar states, its wages are low, its schools and infrastructure underfunded. It relies mostly on taxes to fund government expenses, which puts a higher-than-necessary burden on taxpaying residents and businesses.

While these conditions are widely acknowledged, proposals that emerge from time to time to address these and other systemic weaknesses consistently lose out to political considerations. That’s often due to the absence of the kind of hard, independently-derived data that might change minds.

At least that’s the way a new group of prominent Idaho business executives see it. Named Idaho 2020, its members intend to fund and promote data-driven research they hope will shape public discourse on topics such as capital investment, taxes and economic development. Their goal is to shed light on best business practices in other states that, for one reason or another, have not won favor here, and to do so in a non-partisan manner that stresses economics over politics.

“Wouldn’t it be nice for our Legislature to be making decisions based on data and real hard information on what has been successful around us?” the group’s leader, Tommy Ahlquist, asks rhetorically. He is chief operating officer of Gardner Co., the Boise-based commercial real estate development firm that built the 8th & Main tower, bought the US Bank building and is building the adjacent City Center Plaza on The Grove.

Established in September, Idaho 2020’s leading members include Simplot CEO and President Bill Whitacre; Melaleuca founder and CEO Frank VanderSloot; Oppenheimer Companies CEO Skip Oppenheimer and Ball Ventures CEO Cortney Liddiard. The group hopes its research, data analysis and polling can drive a different kind of dialogue on Idaho taxes, economics and business development.

More than just entering the debate, they want to change its terms with data that help refocus the discussion. The motive is similar to Utah-based Zions Bank’s move last year to launch Idaho Politics Weekly, a news website and aggregator that conducts polling on statewide and national issues.

Political scientist Jim Weatherby said others have tried to create similar policy research organizations in Idaho, but those efforts failed, usually for lack of money. He thinks the power and prestige involved in Idaho 2020 could combat that.

“I’m delighted to see a group representing a broad spectrum of political thought in Idaho is taking on this challenge.”

THINK TANK RESEARCH

Ahlquist said Idaho 2020’s initial research project, conducted by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, looks at how states fund capital improvements, an area where Idaho has few useful tools. The study compares practices in Idaho and seven other Western states — Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. Montana and Wyoming were intentionally omitted because natural resources have such large effects in those state’s economies compared to the rest.

One public financing method comes up for frequent criticism in Idaho, especially among anti-tax groups: tax-increment financing by urban renewal agencies. Idaho has about 60 urban renewal districts where the independent agencies, created by a local governing body, can collect a portion of taxes in a given district to finance development within that area.

Critics complain that the agencies are unelected bodies whose districts siphon away taxes that would otherwise fund schools and local services. They also contend that the bodies live on past their original missions, looking for more ways to collect taxes and spend money.

Because Idaho lacks many other financing and economic development tools, and because state law requires a two-thirds public vote to approve a general obligation bond, agencies have sometimes backed ventures that stretch their defined scope of authority, drawing more criticism. An interim committee of state lawmakers has been reviewing urban renewal policies and procedures this year with an eye toward reform.

Ahlquist said Idaho 2020’s formation was prompted in large part by seemingly perennial efforts in the state Legislature to “try to kill urban renewal.” After he testified before lawmakers in support of urban renewal agencies last year, “I just said, ‘Ya know, I’m getting tired of just being the guy that says no.’ We need to really dig into this and find out what other states do, how’s everyone else investing in themselves and how do we compare. We didn’t really go into it with any agenda of what to do with the data and the results.”

We didn’t see anyone else asking the detailed questions: What’s the data? What else is happening out there?

Gardner Co. COO Tommy Ahlquist

Idaho 2020 plans to use the data it collects as the basis for questions to ask in statewide polls. Though the work is not complete, the group did release some of its initial findings. Among them:

▪ Compared to other Western states and the nation as a whole, Idaho has far fewer of the fiscal and regulatory burdens that businesses typically view as limits to economic growth potential. Right or wrong, this means Idaho’s economy should be doing better than it is.

▪ The number of bond issues in Idaho for the 10 years from 2004 to 2013 was less than half that of Utah and just a quarter of Utah’s volume by price. The greatest difference occurred in 2009, amid the deep recession, when states were rushing to take advantage of low interest rates to finance capital projects. In 2010, the amount borrowed in Utah for education and transportation-related projects was, respectively, three and four times what Idaho agencies borrowed.

▪ Statewide polling conducted for Idaho 2020 by Boise-based GS Strategies in November showed that the quality of the state’s education system was the top concern among respondents.

Jeffery Sayer, who last week concluded his tenure as director of the state Commerce Department, praised the group for “gathering some of the best business minds in the state to address critical issues of our future.”

Sayer last fall publicly urged state lawmakers to focus more on investment in education and training over tax cuts to spur the economy. He said he’s “encouraged the leading business minds in Idaho 2020 are confirming education and talent are our highest priority. Their work is impressive and we need to pay close attention to it.”

NOT A LOBBYING GROUP

While business groups like the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry have turned to focus more on lobbying and political action, Ahlquist said Idaho 2020’s mission was “the furthest thing away from lobbying.”

“We don’t want this to appear in any way threatening to anybody,” he said. “So we have tried all along the way to inform elected officials in all areas of our government.”

He emphasized the importance of digging into new possibilities: “Let’s ask the questions. And once we get those answers, let’s see what Idahoans think about the data that we got, and then let’s go from there.”

The difference here is the clout and financial resources represented in the groups that are part of the 2020 organization.

Political scientist Jim Weatherby

He said the group would be releasing the full details of the public financing research and the polling results later this month, briefing lawmakers and business leaders and making the data public.

“Hopefully it becomes a pattern, whatever the issue, where business can gather data, ask questions that then help us formulate great policy for this great state we live in,” he said.

Bill Dentzer covers politics, Legislature and government accountability for the Statesman. 208-377-6438, @IDSbilld

What’s most important to Idahoans?

A poll conducted for Idaho 2020 asked people to identify the most important issue facing the state today. Here’s how they responded:

Most important issue

Overall

Education/quality

17.8

Unemployment/jobs

12.6

The economy

11.6

Health care/insurance

5.2

Education funding

5.2

Immigration

3.0

Big government/interference

2.6

Water/rights

2.4

Taxes

2.2

Roads/infrastructure

1.8

Wages

1.8

Environment/global warming

1.2

Government/politics

1.2

Guns/gun control

1.2

The poll also asked people to identify the most important initiative for growing the state economy and creating jobs. Their responses

Provide better K-12 education, increase number of students that pursue higher education: 46.6 percent

Create tax policy/regulations that encourage economic growth: 21 percent

Provide basic public infrastructure (roads, sewer/water, schools): 13.8 percent

Increase loans/investment for small and mid-sized business development: 12.6 percent.

The poll surveyed 500 people across the state and was conducted in November. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

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