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Gov. Little urges collaboration, innovation at Western Governors’ Association workshop

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 3, 2019

Idaho Gov. Brad Little is introduced during the the Western Govenors Association’s Reimangining the Rural West Initiative workshop on Tuesday at Red Lion Hotel Templin’s on the River in Post Falls. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Idaho Gov. Brad Little is introduced during the the Western Govenors Association’s Reimangining the Rural West Initiative workshop on Tuesday at Red Lion Hotel Templin’s on the River in Post Falls. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Idaho Gov. Brad Little encouraged policymakers and stakeholders to “get out of their silos” at the Western Governors’ Association workshop in Post Falls on Tuesday.

He wasn’t talking about escaping grain-storage containers, of course, but about collaborating to create initiatives for rural areas in fields like energy, education, entrepreneurship and infrastructure.

“It’s natural for people to work in their own kind of silo,” Little said. “We talked about, ‘How do you tie endangered species protection and forest health to water to affordable power?’ And that’s why you get smart people together and look at all the options.”

Many of those “smart people” were together Tuesday at Red Lion Hotel Templin’s on the River, including local legislators and representatives from the U.S. Small Business Administration, area universities and health departments from multiple states.

“If you really want to get something done, ask someone who is too busy to do it,” Little said.

Little is one of three governors who has hosted a workshop on the Western Governors’ Association’s yearlong theme of Reimagining the Rural West, which association chairman and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum selected.

“I worship at the altar of stealing good ideas from other states,” Little said with a smile from the stage.

The Western Governors’ Association includes 22 governors from Texas to the coast, including leaders of not only states but of the U.S. territories of American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam. At Tuesday’s meeting, though, Little was the only governor to attend.

The organization does “bipartisan policy work” in a variety of areas focused on issues that impact Western states, according to their website.

One of those issues was energy in rural communities, with an emphasis on affordability and renewable options.

As is true in many states, utility companies that serve Idaho also serve other states, and electric cooperatives also often get their power out of state. A panel discussed the implications of these interstate arrangements on Tuesday.

“The first thing you have to recognize is that you are part of a larger community, if you will, and then you have to be involved in the conversations and be working constructively with your neighbors,” said John Chatburn, administrator at the Idaho Governor’s Office of Energy and Mineral Resources.

When crossing state lines, regulation differences can be difficult to navigate. Chatburn said it’s “critically important” to be involved in regional and national efforts to save energy and pursue renewable options.

“I think the primary thing for elected officials to recognize is that no state is an island,” Chatburn said.

Creating power resilience, especially in the wake of grid shutoffs across California, was a focus of the energy discussion.

Peter West, director of energy programs at the Energy Trust of Oregon, discussed the microgrid program the nonprofit has worked on in Oregon to help avoid the problem.

A microgrid is an area that has the capability to detach from the larger grid and use the power it generates to “self serve,” though “not at the same level” as the entire grid, to ensure “critical services” are maintained when power may not be available across the entire grid, West said.

The microgrids “basically keep the lights on and keep critical infrastructure hospitals still powered at some minimum level and have that greater public safety necessary to ensure that wildfires don’t – that we don’t have a California event in Oregon,” West said.

Other panels covered topics such as broadening the outdoor recreation economy and expanding telehealth services.

Little emphasized the importance of broadband fiber being placed in rural areas across the state and his “dig once” emphasis.

“I’ve told my agencies that if the state is putting some money into a restructure, particularly into the main street of a small town, and we’re not putting in dark fiber or hot fiber, that’s got a place for it, I don’t want anything to do with it,” Little said.

Access to broadband affects everything from small business development to the medical services available in a rural area.

“Hospitals today absolutely have to have good, high-quality broadband capacity,” Little said.

“It’s no secret that I’m a rural Idaho guy,” Little said. “With mills, mines, farms, food-processing plants becoming more efficient, one of the ways you replace those jobs that are lost out there is recreational opportunity.”

Little, who said he sees such recreation as a key to growth in Idaho, participated in a panel discussion on outdoor recreation and the economy.

“I want Idaho to grow. One of my best baits to either keep our kids here or to recruit people in are high-quality recreational opportunities,” Little said. “That’s what I call the ‘special sauce’ we have in Idaho.”

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