Bringing the Economy Home


Bottom Rung: Longtime Idaho Economist Stresses Education And Healthcare To Boost Wages

Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

Mike Ferguson, Director of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy.

Idaho has the largest percentage of minimum wage jobs in the country. That’s been the jumping off point for StateImpact Idaho’s series examining wages; we’re calling it Bottom Rung.

We know that an aging population has had an effect on the kinds of jobs available, that a shrinking construction sector has played a part, and that a decrease in education funding could also be partly to blame.

To talk more about the trend, we recently sat down with economist and director of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy Mike Ferguson. We also planned to speak with Idaho Department of Commerce director Jeff Sayer, but Sayer canceled our conversation indefinitely.

Q: You’ve got a bit of a chicken and egg situation here. Data from Census and IRS looking at migration patterns show the younger educated workforce is leaving the state, we’ve got older retirees moving in. Which needs to come first the educated workforce in the state, or the businesses that are going to pay high wages? Continue Reading

Bottom Rung: Why One Idaho Border Business Chose Washington

Jessica Robinson / Northwest News Network

Tim Skubitz stands in front of his McDonalds in Newport, Washington. It's right across the street from Oldtown, Idaho.

The border between Washington and Idaho is like a petri dish for what the minimum wage does to the economy. That’s where two extremes meet. Idaho has the federal minimum wage: $7.25 an hour. Meanwhile, Washington’s is nearly $2 more.

At $9.19, Washington has the highest minimum wage in the nation. You might expect that wage gap to send Washington border businesses fleeing over to Idaho. But that’s not what’s happening.

Idahoans like Ron Mendive pride themselves on having a business-friendly state. The Republican state representative from Coeur d’Alene shares the view of many about the minimum wage. Continue Reading

Bottom Rung: Why Building A Strong Idaho Economy Takes Public Investment

Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

Bob Lokken, CEO of WhiteCloud Analytics, in his downtown Boise office

Bob Lokken, CEO of Boise-based WhiteCloud Analytics, is three years into building his new company. It designs software for health care professionals with the aim of allowing doctors and others to interrogate vast amounts of health care data. Lokken founded it after his previous company, ProClarity Corporation, was bought by Microsoft.

Recently, he showed me around the downtown office where software developers work intently behind large computer screens. I wasn’t there to talk about better health outcomes through guided data analysis; I was there to talk about Idaho’s workforce.

This week, StateImpact Idaho is reporting on low-wage work through its series “Bottom Rung.” Retired University of Idaho economist Stephen Cooke offers a blunt assessment of Idaho’s shifting employment picture. He believes the state is on a path toward a growing number of low-skilled, low-wage jobs.  Continue Reading

Bottom Rung: The Workforce Shift That’s Costing Idaho Good-Paying Jobs

Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

A Steelhead Construction worker measures siding for a new home west of Boise.

Not long ago, you could hear the buzz of power saws all over the Treasure Valley. It was punctuated by the steady rhythm of hammers and nail guns. More than 10,000 homes went up in Ada and Canyon counties in the two years before the recession hit. Then, the sound stopped.

“’08 and ’09 were really hard,” says Aaron Wright of Steelhead Construction. He founded the siding and remodeling company as Idaho’s housing boom took hold. At the peak, Wright employed more than 30 people. When the market crashed, he scaled back to three.

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Bottom Rung: Gov. Otter Touts Idaho’s Low Wages To Attract Gun Companies

Joe Jaszewski / Idaho Statesman

For the last two years, Gov. Otter has pushed for lower business taxes, a state-based health insurance exchange, and hiring tax credits.

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter is using Idaho’s low wages as a selling point. In a letter sent to out-of-state gun manufacturers last month to encourage them to relocate to Idaho, Otter touts the comparatively low cost of labor here.

This week we’re reporting on wages in Idaho. The governor portrays as an asset the wage trends we’ve been reporting on. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show Idaho has the largest percentage of minimum wage workers in the country; Idaho’s average per capita personal income is second from the bottom. Mississippi is the only state where personal income is less.

In the letter sent to 79 gun and ammunition makers in 28 states, the governor highlights Idaho’s low wages as a way for those companies to save money.

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Bottom Rung: Why An Influx Of Retirees To Idaho Is Creating More Low-Wage Jobs

Emilie Ritter Saunders / StateImpact

Jordyn Skinner is a freshman at Boise State University. She also works part-time at Franco's Pizzeria.

There’s a brand new pizza joint in southeast Boise. It’s nestled in a mini-strip mall with a gas station, dry cleaner and hair salon.

On a recent Friday evening, Franco’s Pizzeria was just starting to pick up. It’s a tiny place. The cash register is only a few steps away from the industrial pizza ovens. There are a handful of tables and stools inside for someone who just wants a quick slice.

Two employees behind the register take turns answering the phone and taking orders. Two other workers are busy hand-tossing pizza dough, spreading sauce on the crust and layering the New York-style pies with toppings.

Save for the owners, everyone at Franco’s earns $7.50 an hour, that’s a quarter above minimum wageContinue Reading

Bottom Rung: Two Idaho Workers Talk About Life On Low Wages

Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

John was an IT director 10 years ago. Now he spends his workdays behind the register of a Boise store.

Wages are lower in Idaho than in nearly ever other state. That’s often chalked up to Idaho’s rural nature and low cost of living. But recently, the state has lost ground.

A federal Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows that Idaho has the largest share of workers earning minimum wage in the country. And that share — 7.7 percent — has grown rapidly.

All this week, we’ll explain the trends that are playing out at the bottom of Idaho’s wage scale. Today, we’re asking: What is it like to earn minimum wage or close to it in Idaho?  Continue Reading

Mental Health, Preventive Care, And The Debate Over Medicaid Expansion In Idaho

Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

Mitch Ponting is grateful he's doing well, and building relationships with his family.

When the 2013 legislative session wraps up, a big policy question will remain: Will the state make Medicaid available to a greater number of Idaho’s poor? The federal health care law encourages that move. It’s a debate that involves potential costs and savings, along with patient well-being. And it turns quickly to chronic conditions, like mental illness.

Mitchell Ponting is 48 years old with neatly trimmed gray hair and a quick smile. When he was paroled from prison last summer after serving two years on drug charges, he faced an immediate problem.

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Is Idaho Winning A Race To The Economic Bottom? That Depends On Who You Ask

Emilie Ritter Saunders / StateImpact

Mike Ferguson spoke to Boise's City Club on March 13, 2013.

Many of Idaho’s monthly and quarterly economic indicators are good. The state’s unemployment rate has dropped steadily, tax collections are on-par with forecasts, gross state product is growing, and so are incomes.

But economist Mike Ferguson says it’s not that simple. To get a true sense of where Idaho stands economically, Ferguson says, it’s important to look at where Idaho has been, and what’s going on in our neighboring states.

Ferguson directs the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy. Before that, he was Idaho’s chief economist for 25 years working under six different governors. As StateImpact has reported over the last two years, Ferguson is critical of Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s economic development policies, particularly cutbacks in state funding of public services.

Ferguson packaged his concerns in a speech to Boise’s City Club this week. We’ve posted the full audio of his talk here: Continue Reading

Local Leaders Turn Out To Oppose Business Lobby Tax Plan

Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

Rep. Mike Moyle asked a question of a local official from Burley, Idaho in today's public hearing.

At the Capitol this morning there was a long public hearing on two competing bills that address Idaho’s business personal property tax. That’s the state’s tax on business equipment and machinery. StateImpact talked through the two proposals and today’s public comment with Boise State Public Radio host Samantha Wright.

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