BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s new campaign commercial claims the state’s economy is “on a roll” thanks to his leadership, citing several measures.
But overall, Idaho’s economy, while growing, has been much slower to recover than most states from the recession that hit just after Otter took office in 2006. Of all the states, 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. Idaho’s per-capita personal income ranked next-to-last in 2013, ahead of only Mississippi’s.
Kaycee Emery, Otter campaign spokeswoman, said the ad’s goal is to remind people “that compared to the rest of the nation, Idaho is on top.”
“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.
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,” LiCalzi said.
The Otter campaign cites specific sources for its claims, such as 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, as 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 in a survey, small-business owners 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 differing views of how to measure economic health. In addition to employment, he said, Pew considers personal income.
“Personal income is a really good measure for measuring a state’s prosperity and sort of overall economic well-being,” Huh said.
That’s a measure in which 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; it has remained there since. In 1995, Idaho ranked 37th.
Norton Francis, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute, said Idaho 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 although it’s not robust, Idaho’s economy is improving.
“We’re not booming,” LiCalzi said. “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 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 news about Idaho’s economic challenges, suggesting “that’s the liberal media, they’re just saying all these things.”
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