To hear the naysayers and malcontents tell it, Idaho is on the road to destruction, badly led by a weak governor and a passive, do-nothing Legislature dominated by RINOs and Democrats. They say the state needs to “see the light” of more ideology and rightist leadership.
This is pure horse pucky. If Idaho is so poorly led, why have we had a 16 percent population growth in the decade, one of the best in the nation? Why is Idaho in the top group nationally in coming out of the COVID recession with better than a 10 percent state revenue growth?
Don’t all those new Idaho residents (up almost 260,000 from 2010 to 2020, U.S. census) know how awful Idaho is, going to hell in a handbasket if you listen to the baying ideological GOP rightists or the shrunken Democratic Party?
The new session of the Idaho Legislature starts tomorrow and there will be plenty of issues, from taxes to executive power, school funding to Medicaid costs, infrastructure to prisons, COVID to food-stamp benefits. That’s the nature of the body, to take ideas from many perspectives and guide the state year by year. That takes wisdom and, yes, willingness to listen, which are often in short supply on both the far right and the far left.
But in the midst of the debates, we should look at two points in the big picture:
First, population growth. Idaho has had robust population growth going back 30 years or more. The state population is estimated in 2020 at 1.826 million, up 16 percent in a decade and almost doubled in 30 years. (U.S. census, Idaho) Put another way, almost one in two Idahoans today is new to the state over the past three decades.
This is happening while the nation’s population growth has been flattening; it has barely moved in the past decade. New census estimates say the nation’s growth has been the slowest in more than a century. Some states, such as New York, Illinois and now California, are losing population.
For Idaho, it’s hard to overestimate the impact of population growth and demographic change. Growth, particularly in our larger communities, drives virtually all of our public policy debates, from schools to highways. An expanding population brings issues to the fore, but they’re ones of positive management, not decline. How many cities and states do you know which would love to have Idaho’s numbers?
Second, we’ve come through the worst of the COVID pandemic with one of the best financial pictures of any state in the nation. Idaho state revenues year date (July through November) are up more than 16 percent, one of the best states nationally, $1.512 billion to $1.763 billion through five months. (DFM report, November 2020). Better yet, our state debt-to-revenue ratio is also in the top group at less than 4 percent (Rich States, Poor States, 2020 report). We’re not incurring debt to fix past overspending, as some states are having to do.
Why is that? The answer is in the prudent, fiscally responsible way Idaho budgets are set. I served on House Revenue & Taxation Committee while in the Legislature where a common question often was “how will this be paid for?” We’re neither “spend it all” advocates as in many liberal states, nor are we skinflints on the far-right, where some want to eliminate state pensions and school funding. Last month, Idaho was ranked third in the country in economic opportunity, just behind Utah and Wyoming (Rich States 2020 report).
Critics from the right or left rarely acknowledge these positive reports. Leftists want you to focus on so-called “social justice” issues like race and economic inequality. They want you to pour out more money from your pockets. They want to continue and expand handouts. Their allies in government, media and the Democratic Party are almost all of this spend-tax-spend persuasion. They rarely look at the cost side of proposals and the evident monetary concerns.
Critics on the right have other motives. They want the state to embrace a ruthless form of Darwinian survivalism by eliminating state-paid employee pensions and eliminating public school funding — all of it. They also oppose state Medicaid expansion, saying individuals should pay it themselves or let charities do it. They favor legalizing drugs and changing laws to let high-rollers manipulate currency trading. They opposed 2020 reforms that limited lawyer price gouging of indigents in court cases. They support transparency in public records, except when it comes to their own donors and out-of-state oligarchs.
Wisely, the Legislature has steered a path between these extremes and a growing economy has given us a brighter future than extremists on either side can see. We should look for legislative proposals which builds on the Idaho strengths.
Stephen Hartgen of 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 Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com. An earlier version of this column appeared on Dec. 22, 2019.