When Sen. Mary Souza of Coeur d’Alene talks about the state of the economy – with businesses closed and staff reductions – she isn’t thinking only of situations happening to “somebody else.”
Souza and her husband, Rick, are going through the same struggles of many business people throughout the Gem State as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The Souzas make their living staging corporate events, which include elaborate graphics and all the production bells and whistles that make those happenings shine – and corporate customers asking for more.
It’s a booming enterprise when times are good, but to say it’s “slow” now is an understatement. Their calendar is empty, with businesses large and small cancelling corporate events, and their 12 employees are on reduced schedules.
“It’s what bars, restaurants and other businesses are going through, absolutely,” she says. “I understand cash flow needs, and employee needs.”
As a third-term Republican senator, she also knows a thing or two about state government and understands what her fellow lawmakers may be facing next year – especially if the virtual lockdown from the coronavirus goes into the fall, or beyond. If that happens, the Legislature won’t be worried so much about some of the issues that were at the forefront of this session – such as transgender athletes, reversing affirmative action or what’s printed on Idaho license plates. Next year’s session has the potential of making the recession of a decade ago look like the height of prosperity by comparison.
Souza doesn’t claim to have a crystal ball, but she doesn’t see gloom and doom on the horizon – for the state, or her family business.
“We’ve been through ups and downs for over 35 years. Our calendar emptied out completely on the afternoon of the 9-11 attack, so we’ve been through this before. We know how to survive,” she said.
On the legislative front, she thinks the next session will be business as usual – with the education budget getting a boost and state government providing usual services.
“We will be back on the road to working – not all the way back, because it will take the economy time to recover,” she says. “But I don’t think this will be long lasting.”
For one thing, she says, President Trump won’t tolerate a long-term shutdown on the federal level. He has talked about getting at least some people back to work by Easter.
“He is a business-oriented person. He has seen the need for a shutdown to this degree right now, but I do not believe he will let this go on. The economy couldn’t stand it,” Souza says. “They are working fast and furious to do testing and find treatments for the virus. I see a turnaround, not necessarily quickly, but I think in the next several weeks, we’ll be talking about getting back to work and getting the economy going.”
So far, she has gotten negative reviews from constituents on Gov. Brad Little’s stay-at-home order.
“I’m not opining on the governor’s decision, because I don’t have all the information he has. But I do know that people are concerned and discouraged by the fact that the orders have become more stringent rather than less,” she says. “I have yet to get one email or phone call that supports what the governor did.”
Overall, her outlook remains positive. “I think people will be getting back to work sooner rather than later.”
Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill of Rexburg, who is retiring after 19 years in the Legislature, isn’t offering predictions, but says lawmakers are equipped to deal with whatever happens.
“Recessions pose unique problems, but in some ways they are not unique at all,” says Hill. “They’re dealing with the same issues the Legislature did a hundred years ago – how to fund public education, how to improve higher education and taxes.”
For now, he says, it’s important that Idahoans take the steps needed to stay safe. “We don’t need to panic – we’ll get through this,” he said.
And the Legislature will find a way to get through this, hopefully close to the way that Souza expects. As for Hill, his calm nature – which comes in handy during times of political chaos -- will be sorely missed when the Legislature convenes in January.