POCATELLO — During a Friday speech at Idaho State University, Gov. Brad Little touched on a wide variety of issues — diversifying the state’s economy, keeping young people in Idaho, addressing the state’s housing shortage, making Pocatello a hub for the railroad like it once was and more.
But the biggest takeaway from his keynote address at Bannock Development Corp.’s 28th Annual Economic Symposium at ISU’s Stephens Performing Arts Center was that Idaho still has a lot of work to do to get to where it needs to be. Little said the situation is even more urgent considering that a national economic downturn is coming and Idaho needs to be ready.
Creating opportunities for the people of Idaho, especially for young people going to college and graduating, has been at the top of Little’s priority list since he was elected in 2018, he said during his speech to the symposium’s audience of about 300 people.
“Most importantly, we can create an atmosphere in which kids choose to stay in Idaho and those who left will choose to come back,” Little said. “Everything that we do ... is predicated on trying to create that.”
Little said Bannock Development has been a great resource for Southeast Idaho in doing just that.
“This organization in this community time and time again has done what they needed to do to grow, continue to develop better jobs, more jobs, to diversify this economy,” Little said.
It is critical, the governor said, for Idaho to be prepared for the next economic downturn.
“What’s really important is diversifying the economy and adding resilience,” Little said. “We know there’s going to be a slowdown, and it’s already happening in other states. How do we best prepare ourselves for when that happens so that Bannock County, Pocatello, the community, the state of Idaho is prepared for that when it happens?”
He continued, “When I work in economic development, it’s all about first recognizing those who brought you to the dance, those who have been there day in and day out creating jobs and the fact that they just survived. It’s not that they did nothing. In this global economy, people have to continue to create new ideas, to do a better job. One of my sayings that I used to tell my friends in the Capitol is, ‘Change is inevitable. Adaptation and survival are optional.’”
One of the things Idaho is struggling to deal with is the state’s population growth and the challenges it’s created, including a housing shortage, Little said. Idaho’s population has increased from 1.27 million in 2000 to nearly 1.8 million currently.
Having more people in the state is putting pressure on everything from Idaho’s schools to the state’s roads and other infrastructure, Little said.
He said the fact that Idaho’s government has done a good job of managing its money is one of the reasons people are moving to the state in droves.
Little said, “I fundamentally don’t believe in spending money that we don’t have (but I do believe in) saving money for a rainy day. We’re in a position where if this (economy) turns a little south (we have) close to half a billion (dollars) in our rainy day funds. That shock absorber will bode well for us.”
Unfortunately, one of the downsides of the state’s population growth is that the urban areas of the state are experiencing a housing shortage, which is compounded by a shortage of contractors in the state to build new housing, Little said.
The governor said the Pocatello area is in a better spot than the rest of the state in terms of addressing this housing shortage because of the Northgate and New Day housing developments being built in Pocatello and Chubbuck, respectively.
He’s less hopeful about how the rest of the state is going to address the housing shortage.
“I don’t know what the solution is there,” Little said. “You’ve got to have a place to put a house. You’ve got to have a workforce to build that house. And you’ve got to simplify regulation to where you get the house permitted, to where you don’t add friction costs onto it. With the growth that is taking place (in Idaho), it’s still going to be a challenge.”
The shortage of construction contractors as well as plumbers and electricians is due in part to the fact that Idaho’s young people are not going into those fields. Little said his administration has started urging Idaho youths as early as eighth grade to go into those careers if they don’t plan on going to college.
The governor also touched on the state’s Department of Correction, which has had to keep increasing its budget over the last 10 years to operate the state’s prison system.
“It’s gone up 65 percent in 10 years. It has been taking money out of education. It has been taking money out of transportation,” Little said about the Department of Correction budget. “We have got to address this issue.”
But he said there are some positive things going on in the Correction Department.
“This year, we funded the expansion of the St. Anthony Work Camp and we funded new community re-entry centers,” Little said. “We have more parolees in Idaho than any other state. We have got to get these people back into society.”
Little also wants to turn Pocatello back into the railroad hub it once was.
He said the state’s farmers are having a very difficult time getting their crops to market because of the trucker shortage. The governor said turning Pocatello’s Union Pacific rail yard back into a major rail hub is the answer.
“To me, the solution is obvious,” Little said. “We need to aggregate in Pocatello all those (rail) cars on a regular basis to get them onto the main line on a regular basis.”