Stephen Hartgen

The Medicaid expansion issue roiled the 2019 Idaho legislative session and prompted wild claims from the left on how yet another government-subsidized program must be passed or the poor will be hurt.  

Now, the “equity” activists are out gathering signatures to get another cause on the state ballot, this one to force higher minimum wages on Idaho businesses and people. You don’t need a degree in economics to see the effect this would have: less employment and growth overall as businesses squeeze costs by hiring fewer workers.

Nor do you need an econ degree to see who this would impact the most: young people just entering the workforce, seasonal workers who staff many of Idaho’s tourism and recreation industries, as well as retirees seeking more income.

Then there’s the hold-back on business expansion, sure to follow the more-government efforts from the usual anti-business voices.

Some seem to think that’s what Idaho needs. They argue that a higher government-imposed minimum wage scale, with regular arbitrary “step ups,” is needed to provide “livability wages” for all. It’s a Bernie Sanders/Paulette Jordan playbook item, now taken up by virtually every Democratic candidate for president and their cheerleaders in the liberal think tanks and press. (The press, by the way, generally pays its staffers poorly and has shrunk staffing markedly in the past twenty years.)

It’s been shown many times that leaving the issue to the marketplace is a far better solution. Indeed, a recent report from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office puts the potential job losses at up to almost 4 million workers nationally. That’s a lot of people kicked out of work to make a political statement.

What’s more, normal competition in the marketplace is already boosting wages in many sectors. Businesses like Costco, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and others have all raised their wages in recent years, some more than once, to attract and hold good workers. They’re all well above the federal minimum wage of $7.50/hour, where Idaho’s rate is pegged.

Another report in a recent Wall Street Journal article showed that the fastest increases in wages are occurring in less-skilled and entry-level positions, which are in high demand across the country. In short, the basic economics of supply and demand in the marketplace is propelling wage growth.

Almost no one in the state is still paying the base. To track the data, take a look, by region, of state median and average wages, compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and updated regularly.

Among the positions shown in 2017, the mean wages for Southern Idaho are: Education Managers, Secondary Schools, $76,549; Reporters, $34,357; Insurance sales, $55,892; Transportation, including truck driving, $40,000. Food batch workers, $34,121; Tree Trimmers, $38,079; Retail sales, $30,363; Secondary school teachers, $56,711; Elementary School Teachers, $51,232; Tellers, $25,501; Construction labor, $30,048. All of these categories are up substantially from 20 years ago. They hardly suggest poverty wages and generally reflect solid, middle-class incomes.

Other studies show similar upward trends. Idaho Department of Labor statistics show that from 2007 to 2017, average wages have increased markedly in Southern Idaho and elsewhere in the state. Comparisons by industry in the decade 2007-2017 have been: Agriculture, $25,262 to $35,543; Construction, $28,30 to $35,901; Manufacturing, $34,124 to $47,417; Information, $29,272 to $39,445; Financial, $37,527 to $44,692; Edu/health, $30,700 to $40,24l; Govt, $31,162 to $34,445. All are well above the minimum wage rate.

Why are these increases happening? It’s not due to a government-imposed “floor” but, rather, the nature of competitive markets, tight labor supplies and good old American economic principles.

It’s a proven point many times over that government meddling in wage-support economics isn’t good public policy. When I served in the Idaho House as chair of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee, it was routine for government-forced wage increase bills to be brought to the committee by the minority party.

I cannot tell a lie. I held these measures without hearings after routinely asking committee members if they wanted such legislation formally considered. The resounding answer was “no.”

Now, proponents of forced government wage setting are trying to get the proposal on the ballot as an initiative. It’s still not a good policy idea.

The American economy is a remarkable engine of growth and prosperity, particularly in states like Idaho where a light touch of government is preferred. People who like a California model of economic control and high taxation are free to move there any day. What, no takers from Idahoans?

Proponents of government-imposed artificial levels ignore the likely result of less hiring and delayed growth across many industries. They ought to read more of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), which was published in the same year as the Declaration of Independence. Both documents lay out the path forward for freedom-loving and ambitious people everywhere. For Idaho to meddle in the marketplace on this issue would be a mistake

Almost no one in the state is still paying the base. To track the data, take a look, by region, of state median and average wages, compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and updated regularly.

Among the positions shown in 2017, the mean wages for Southern Idaho are: Education Managers, Secondary Schools, $76,549; Reporters, $34,357; Insurance sales, $55,892; Transportation, including truck driving, $40,000. Food batch workers, $34,121; Tree Trimmers, $38,079; Retail sales, $30,363; Secondary school teachers, $56,711; Elementary School Teachers, $51,232; Tellers, $25,501; Construction labor, $30,048. All of these categories are up substantially from 20 years ago. They hardly suggest poverty wages and generally reflect solid, middle-class incomes.

Other studies show similar upward trends. Idaho Department of Labor statistics show that from 2007 to 2017, average wages have increased markedly in Southern Idaho and elsewhere in the state. Comparisons by industry in the decade 2007-2017 have been: Agriculture, $25,262 to $35,543; Construction, $28,30 to $35,901; Manufacturing, $34,124 to $47,417; Information, $29,272 to $39,445; Financial, $37,527 to $44,692; Edu/health, $30,700 to $40,24l; Govt, $31,162 to $34,445. All are well above the minimum wage rate.

Why are these increases happening? It’s not due to a government-imposed “floor” but, rather, the nature of competitive markets, tight labor supplies and good old American economic principles.

It’s a proven point many times over that government meddling in wage-support economics isn’t good public policy. When I served in the Idaho House as chair of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee, it was routine for government-forced wage increase bills to be brought to the committee by the minority party.

I cannot tell a lie. I held these measures without hearings after routinely asking committee members if they wanted such legislation formally considered. The resounding answer was “no.”

Now, proponents of forced government wage setting are trying to get the proposal on the ballot as an initiative. It’s still not a good policy idea.

The American economy is a remarkable engine of growth and prosperity, particularly in states like Idaho where a light touch of government is preferred. People who like a California model of economic control and high taxation are free to move there any day. What, no takers from Idahoans?

Proponents of government-imposed artificial levels ignore the likely result of less hiring and delayed growth across many industries. They ought to read more of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), which was published in the same year as the Declaration of Independence. Both documents lay out the path forward for freedom-loving and ambitious people everywhere. For Idaho to meddle in the marketplace on this issue would be a mistake. 

Or they could take a cue from Sanders himself, who recently said he could raise the wages of some of his campaign workers to the minimum wage he wants to impose on others, but would have to fire some staffers to find the money. Say what?

Stephen Hartgen is a retired five-term Republican state legislator from Twin Falls, where he served on the House Revenue & Taxation Committee and was chairman of the House Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.