Guest Opinions

NAFTA has been a game-changer for Idaho. Don’t damage Idaho agriculture, tech companies

As profitable as NAFTA has been for Idaho agricultural industries, it continues to pose problems with sugar and potatoes, write two Idaho legislators.
As profitable as NAFTA has been for Idaho agricultural industries, it continues to pose problems with sugar and potatoes, write two Idaho legislators. Statesman file

Washington politicians are taking aim at Idahoans again. From our farmers, ranchers and dairymen to our technology workers, they are threatening the jobs of more than 128,000 Idahoans linked to agribusiness and thousands more in the tech sector. The stakes are too high not to speak up and tell those politicians to keep their hands off Idaho’s economic future.

The issue is the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement. This pact between the United States, Mexico and Canada was conceived, negotiated and signed over the course of Republican and Democratic administrations – from Reagan to Clinton. While the pros and cons continue to be debated nationwide, it has been a game-changer for Idaho.

Since 1994, the year NAFTA went into effect, exports from Idaho to Canada and Mexico have shot up 800 percent. Nearly half of our farm and food exports went to Mexico and Canada last year. Idaho’s dairy exports have doubled over the last decade. As a result, the men and women who work our land and process food and beverages contribute to industries that make up about 20 percent of Idaho’s economy. One out of every seven jobs in Idaho is tied directly or indirectly to the agribusiness field.

NAFTA continues to boost Idaho’s technology companies, too. Micron and Hewlett-Packard have done billions of dollars of business with our NAFTA partners over the past 15 years. They employ thousands of Idahoans and do business with countless other Idaho companies.

With so much on the line for Idaho, threats to terminate NAFTA are setting off alarm bells all over the state. Should Mexico and Canada retaliate, the effects could be devastating to thousands of Idaho families. Mexico and Canada could take their business elsewhere and leave Idaho holding the bag.

We understand NAFTA is not perfect. As profitable as it’s been for our agricultural industries, there continue to be problems with sugar and potatoes. An agreement that complex between countries whose combined population is nearly half-a-billion people requires ongoing care. What worked during the age of beepers and flip-phones doesn’t necessarily work today. Making changes to the deal that preserve the gains made by Idaho businesses, while helping industries that have suffered, is prudent.

Idaho continues to struggle with a low-wage economy and an inability to fill thousands of good-paying jobs. We leave hundreds of millions of dollars in unclaimed wages on the table every year. However, our food and tech industries are bright spots in our economy. We value security and hard work just like you all do. Those Idaho values will continue to serve us well as we work to grow our economy and provide our children with the skills they need to prosper for generations to come.

While we have our eye on Idaho’s future, we cannot turn our backs on the men and women helping Idaho grow today. Our trade negotiators could learn a thing or two from Idahoans – be diligent in the promotion of fair trade, not just free trade, and carefully address wage, environmental and food quality concerns, without dumping a treaty that has overwhelmingly benefited Idaho’s agricultural sector. Walking away from NAFTA would spell trouble for Idaho’s export industries, our communities and our families.

Rep. Mat Erpelding is the House Democratic leader and represents Boise’s District 19. Sen. Jim Patrick is chairman of the Senate Commerce & Human Resources Committee and represents District 25 in Twin Falls.