Washington politicians are taking aim at Idahoans once 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 and stop meddling with our families’ livelihoods.
The issue at hand is the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. This pact between the United States, Mexico and Canada was conceived, negotiated and signed over the course of both Republican and Democratic administrations — from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton. While the pros and cons of this agreement continue to be debated nationwide, it has been a game-changer for Idaho.
Let’s start with the fact that since 1994, the year NAFTA went into effect, exports from Idaho companies 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. These businesses — big and small — not only feed the world with Idaho’s products, they support families and communities around the state.
On the other side the spectrum, NAFTA continues to boost Idaho’s technology companies. Micron and Hewlett-Packard have done billions of dollars of business with our NAFTA partners over the last 15 years. They employ thousands of Idahoans and do business with countless other Idaho companies.
When we say the stakes are high, we mean it.
With so much on the line for Idaho, we are concerned about the rhetoric coming out of Washington as we renegotiate the pact. Threats to terminate NAFTA or make substantial changes to the agreement are setting off alarm bells all over Idaho. Should Mexico and Canada retaliate, the effects could be devastating to thousands of families in our state — especially those in the food business. A recent television report explored the role NAFTA plays in the lives of our farmers and ranchers. One farmer in particular admitted he was scared about what could happen if we walk away from the deal. More than likely, Mexico and Canada would take their business elsewhere. Such a move would leave Idaho holding the bag.
We understand NAFTA is not perfect — for Idaho or any other state in the nation. As profitable as it’s been for our farmers, ranchers and dairymen, 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 preserves the gains made by Idaho businesses, while helping those industries that have suffered is prudent. We need to continue to work through the ongoing trade concerns.
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 that provide good livings for hundreds of thousands of our friends and neighbors. 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 attention away from the men and women who are helping Idaho grow in the present. These people work every day in jobs that require steady and diligent work. Our trade negotiators could learn a thing or two from these Idahoans — be diligent in the promotion of fair trade, not just free trade, carefully address wage, environmental and food quality concerns, without dumping a treaty that has overwhelmingly benefited Idaho’s agricultural sector. In the end, 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. He is serving his third term and represents District 19 in Boise.
Sen. Jim Patrick is Chairman of the Senate Commerce & Human Resources Committee. He is serving his third term and represents District 25 in Twin Falls.