BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s new campaign commercial claims the state’s economy is “on a roll” thanks to his leadership, citing several selected measures.
But overall, Idaho’s economy, while growing, has been much slower to recover than most states from the big recession that hit just after Otter took office in 2006. Idaho saw the third-biggest drop in employment from 2007 to 2014, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts’ “Fiscal 50: State Trends and Analysis” report, a key measure of economic health. Its per-capita personal income ranked next-to-last in 2013, ahead of only Mississippi. Idaho’s unemployment rate in July was 4.8 percent, ranking 13th among states, but unlike Pew’s employment figures, that doesn’t take into account those who have given up looking for jobs.
Kaycee Emery, Otter campaign spokeswoman, said, “What we’re hearing is there’s a lot of people very positive about where our economy is and where it’s going because the governor has made so many tough decisions.” She said, “The focus of the ad is just to remind people that compared to the rest of the nation, Idaho is on top.”
Jasper LiCalzi, professor of political economy at the College of Idaho, said, “You can find numbers that’ll tell you almost anything. … Is it a flat-out lie, completely wrong? Probably not, but it’s weak information.”
The Otter campaign cites specific sources for its claims, like a Heartland Institute article ranking Idaho No. 5 for “best economic outlook.” That article, based on a survey by the American Legislative Exchange Council, ranks states on such measures as whether they have a right-to-work law barring compulsory union membership – Idaho does.
The campaign also cites a Bloomberg News “Economic Health Index” that ranked Idaho No. 5; a Moody’s Analytics report predicting that Idaho will be No. 9 for job growth in the coming year; and a Governing Magazine report that a survey of small business owners showed those in Idaho gave their state an A-plus for business-friendliness.
“Some of those are forecasts, but they’re based on facts and factual information that has come out of the state,” Emery said.
Kil Huh, director of state and local fiscal health for the Pew Charitable Trusts, said, “There are very differing views in terms of how one measures the health of an economy.” At Pew, he said, in addition to employment, “We look at personal income. … Personal income is a really good measure for measuring a state’s prosperity and sort of overall economic well-being.”
That’s a measure where Idaho has fared increasingly poorly since Otter took office. In 2006, when he was first elected governor, Idaho’s per-capita income ranked 42nd among the 50 states, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. It fell to 45th in 2008 and 49th in 2009, where it has remained since. In 1995, Idaho ranked 37th.
Norton Francis, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute, said Idaho currently is seeing faster job growth than some states, but it fell further during the recession and has more ground to make up than most. “For a lot of your stats, you’re still struggling,” he said.
LiCalzi said, “I’m sure he’s got polls that show the governor when we ask people about what they like about you and don’t like about you, the economy is one thing they don’t like. Well, let’s try to bump that up.”
As for Idaho’s economy, LiCalzi said, “Things are better, but it’s not robust. We’re not booming. When you get to a real boom, that’s when you see unemployment drop precipitously and wages go up. We’re nowhere near that.”
Jim Weatherby, emeritus professor at Boise State University, noted that Otter’s new ad – which launched this week in southern and eastern Idaho and will be playing in North Idaho in the coming weeks – comes on the heels of an Albertson Foundation-funded study that forecast that Idaho’s schoolchildren are likely to be poorer, more urban and more racially diverse in the next five years, a trend that poses challenges for the state’s schools.
“Typically a governor is punished for poor economic performance and is rewarded for good economic performance, so this is an area where he needs to come out swinging and he has,” Weatherby said.
LiCalzi said Otter’s “facts don’t lie” lead-in to the ad appears designed to counter all the news about Idaho’s economic challenges, suggesting “that’s the liberal media, they’re just saying all these things.”