Stephen Hartgen 01

Gov. Brad Little gave an upbeat and impressive snapshot of the Idaho economy in his State of the State address to Idaho legislators on Jan. 6, and the real numbers bear out his rosy assessment.

Even observers from the liberal press to the snarky Idaho Freedom Foundation found pieces to like. For the media, it was the pour-in-more- money commitment to education and particularly toward teacher salaries. (Post-Register, Jan. 14). For the IFF, it was Little’s overall “shave” of the state’s budget, which he proposed to grow only by less than 4 percent, compared to the 6 percent plus range previously. (IFF, Jan.7)

Neither the pressies nor the IFF was much of a fan at the end of Gov. C. L. “Butch” Otter’s 12 years as governor, but Little’s 2020 victory lap has a lot of forward momentum due at least in part to Otter’s long leadership.

It was Otter who led the state through a tough recession, 2008-2012, and who protected education funding then from deep cuts. It was Otter who tirelessly championed Idaho’s natural resource economies while the pressies and the Dems trashed his prudent social spending holdbacks.

It was Otter who led various Idaho missions overseas to “open the door” to now-improving Idaho exports.  And it was Otter who, in his time in office, appointed a good half or more of Idaho’s common-sense and generally conservative judges.

Most success rests on the shoulders of predecessors and Otter deserves a lot of credit for holding Idaho’s rudder steady through the Obama storms. It’s a good legacy indeed.

So look where we are today. The state ended 2019 as one of the nation’s leaders in population growth, wage growth, business development, modest taxes and other measures like economic opportunity and entrepreneurship.

Here are some recent Idaho rankings: 1st in median household income growth; 1st in the west in personal income growth; 3rd in women-owned businesses; 7th best state for business; 8th in GDP growth; 8th lowest poverty rate; 9th best taxwise for low-income earners; 12th lowest unemployment rate. (US Census Bureau). 

From Boise to Coeur d’Alene, from Twin Falls to Pocatello and Idaho Falls, it’s mostly a growth picture. Sure, there are lagging locations, mostly small and deeply rural, but there are lots of places in the nation that would love to have Idaho’s overall numbers.

A few years ago, when I was in the Legislature, I got a call from an old friend from Maine who was then a state economic development official there.

He wanted to know what Idaho was doing “right,” as his own state was mired in economic stagnation, with an aging population, out-migration, high taxes, soaring welfare costs, high unionization and business flight, despite having abundant wood product timberlands and a photogenic touristy coastline. He asked, what are you guys doing so well out there in Idaho?

I reeled off the usual factors: prudent state leadership, fiscally responsible budgeting year in and year out, business friendliness, low unionization, diversity of manufacturing, agriculture and natural resources, an emphasis on low regulation and personal freedom and, yes, a rising “youngish” population, limited “welfare” benefits and, yep, some great scenery too, even without an ocean.

I pointed out that we had conservative leadership in our state offices and Legislature for going back a quarter century, and that even with Idaho’s growth and population influx, we retained our traditional values.

These things don’t happen by chance or coincidence, but rather by intent and conscious decisions. At every election, voters get to pick spendy profligacy or prudent management.

Idaho’s elections profile usually reflects that choice and, almost always, voters choose the second path. It is not by accident that now-Gov. Brad Little carried 40 of the state’s 44 counties; in the Magic valley, he carried all but two precincts across seven counties.

Which brings us to the new legislative session, which already reflects pushes and pulls. Lefties, led by spend-it-all Reclaim Idaho liberals and Democrats, want to send Idaho’s already substantial education commitment through the roof, with little accountability for already-nicely-compensated teachers. They truly want all your money; to them, a dollar not grabbed from you is a dollar left behind.

Righties like the IFF want further cuts in state administrative rules and to eliminate functions like Health & Welfare’s “home visits,” regarded as a form of governmental spying. They even want to eliminate education support entirely, as fringy and unconstitutional as that would be.

Meanwhile, above these mostly extremist brays, the Idaho economy continues to cook, particularly in Southern Idaho. Potato prices are pushing $12/ctw, milk is over $19/ctw and the new US-China trade deal and the US-Canada-Mexico trade revisions are likely to further boost Idaho’s economy. Up north, the state is working with the feds to co-manage timber tracts for higher returns and less fire.

And people are moving in to escape the losses of personal freedom elsewhere. Seems the “Hotel California” wasn’t so great after all; people could check in, and now they’re leaving.

All in all, Idaho is on the cusp of yet more prosperity, more opportunity, more potential and, if we focus on it, more freedom. It may not be a perfect world, but we’re moving ahead nicely, no matter what the left and right critics say.


Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He is the author of the new book “Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990.”  He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.