Published: June 25, 2024 | Updated: June 24, 2024

Idaho's economy: Little, Risch share their perspectives

Gov. Brad Little chats with North Idaho College President Nick Swayne during a visit to the Coeur d'Alene campus in April.

Gov. Brad Little chats with North Idaho College President Nick Swayne during a visit to the Coeur d'Alene campus in April.

The economy is always a hot topic, especially in a growing state.

The North Idaho Business Journal contacted Sen. Jim Risch and Gov. Brad Little for their perspectives on how business is going in the Gem State. 

• Q&A with Gov. Brad Little

In your opinion, how is Idaho's economy doing right now?

Idaho’s relentless focus on creating a business-friendly environment while promoting a high quality of life and safe communities has caught the attention of many. People and businesses are choosing to relocate or expand to Idaho because we value the hard-earned money of our citizens and businesses.

Idaho embraces "kitchen table economics," just like everyday Idahoans. Our conservative approach to governing means we encourage economic prosperity, rein in government spending and manage our budget with money to spare.

These efforts have allowed Idaho to spearhead significant reforms in tax policy, streamline bureaucratic processes and make strategic investments that have significantly enhanced the quality of life for Idahoans.

In short — what Idaho is doing is working, and we’re just getting started.  

What economic trends are you seeing in North Idaho, especially Kootenai County?

It is a testament to the resilience and hard work of the people of North Idaho that your region has outpaced the state in population and employment growth.

Across the panhandle, job growth is up 12% — adding over 12,000 jobs and more than 1,600 employers since 2018. Nearly 80% of job creation has been driven by the following five industries: construction; accommodation and food services; health care; professional/scientific/technical services; and retail.

Kootenai County is the powerhouse driving North Idaho’s job creation, contributing almost 80% of employment growth over the last five years. Your leading industries, including accommodation and food services, construction and health care, reflect the region’s strength and represent more than 60% of the county’s employment growth. 

In just the first five months of 2024, Kootenai County had nearly 9,000 job postings — over 80% of the regional total — by over 1,400 employers. This is almost twice the level of postings and employers your county realized during the same period in 2019, indicating a robust job market and flourishing economy.

People in Idaho, including North Idaho, are working, and our economic success is proof of hardworking Idahoans’ sheer determination.

What are some of the biggest changes to the state's economy you have seen in your time serving as an elected official in our state?

Idaho has experienced much change since I took office. One thing that has remained consistent is the strength of our economy. Idaho is consistently ranked in the top states for economic momentum, income growth, fiscal responsibility and small business development. Despite our success, my administration remains clear-eyed that we must make sound policy decisions to keep our state in the best position to weather any economic downturn.

Idaho is a self-determination state. We do not want to wait until the federal government makes funds available for us to chase our priorities. Instead, we budget our priorities. We have taken recent rounds of state surplus and invested it in where it matters most: infrastructure for roads, bridges, the drinking and wastewater system, education and public safety. These investments help us keep up with growth, protect Idaho communities and facilitate commerce.

I am steadfast in my commitment to working with my legislative partners to craft policy that supports our current economic success and ensures our long-term economic vitality.

What are you doing to help ensure Idaho's economy continues to be strong as the state grows?

As governor, my goal is to make Idaho the place where we all can thrive, where future and current generations choose to stay and where those who left choose to return. Since taking office in 2019, I have made every decision based on its support of achieving this goal.

In my first year as governor, we secured a major victory in this effort by becoming the least-regulated state in the nation. Excessive regulation at all levels of government can impose high costs on businesses, inhibit job growth and impede the success of our residents. In the first six months of my first term, we cut or simplified 75% of all rule regulations. These efforts have truly transformed Idaho’s administrative code, making Idaho state government simpler for the citizens and businesses it impacts.

With the support of the Idaho Legislature, we have secured historic tax cuts for our hardworking residents and businesses. We have delivered more tax relief per person than any other state in the nation — a staggering $4.6 billion. While many still think of Idaho as a primarily agricultural state, our combination of low taxes and low regulation has fueled our economic diversification.

Now, we’re home to many tech companies, engineering firms, manufacturing and other businesses of all sizes.

A critical priority of mine is to ensure that these Idaho businesses have the skilled labor they need to compete and excel in a global market. The new Idaho LAUNCH program will be a significant boon to this effort by connecting Idaho students with in-state education and training opportunities that will prepare them to fill in-demand jobs across the Gem State.

How do you think we compare with our neighboring states, in terms of business and economic growth and strength?

While other states’ economies are lagging, Idaho’s job market and economy continue to surge.

In March, Idaho led the nation in year-over-year nonfarm job growth. In the recent Rich States, Poor States index, we also came in second place for best economic outlook and best economic performance, rivaling states like Utah and Florida.  

Across the region, Republican-led states have successfully maintained low unemployment rates — and Idaho is no different. Idaho currently reports a 3.3% unemployment rate. Regionally, North Idaho’s unemployment rate has been consistently below 4% since 2022.

Idaho leads the nation with 11.6% more jobs than our pre-pandemic peak in February 2020. Our neighboring state of Utah is in second place, with 11.4%, and the U.S. average is 3.9% as of April 2024.

Where do you see our state in five or 10 years, economically speaking?

We have built a strong foundation to support the Gem State’s continued economic prosperity and propel the state forward. I’m incredibly proud of what Idaho has accomplished since I took office. We have one of the strongest economies in the nation and our people are working. Our budget is solvent, and we have made strategic investments that support economic vitality and a high quality of life, including education, workforce development and transportation infrastructure. After all, commerce cannot thrive without good roads, trained workers and strong communities.

We’re also deploying record tax relief and support for schools to help combat the effects of national inflation. Just last year, Idaho was highlighted by the Wall Street Journal for our historic tax reform and thriving economy.

Most recent projections from the Idaho Department of Labor anticipate continued job creation over the next 10 years, with construction and health care expected to experience the fastest pace of annual growth. LAUNCH will play a key role in meeting the needs of those industries and connecting Idaho students with jobs in their communities.

Together, the efforts and initiatives we’ve championed since 2019 will foster a bright and promising future for our state.

• Q&A with Sen. Jim Risch

In your opinion, how is Idaho's economy doing right now?

There’s no question Idahoans are paying the price for inflation. President Biden’s spending resulted in higher prices across the board from housing and groceries to energy. Despite these challenges, Idaho’s economy is doing well as people move here and start businesses due to our state’s conservative policies. Idaho’s balanced budget continues to set a prime example for Washington, D.C. on how a government should budget and spend.

What economic trends are you seeing in North Idaho, especially Kootenai County?

While natural resources industries such as timber, mining and agriculture are still vital, Idaho’s economy is more diverse. For instance, Coeur d’Alene is now a year-round tourist destination and new high-tech industries are planting roots. In Kootenai County and across the state, every industry has been impacted by a labor shortage. This shortage is further exacerbated by rising housing prices that limit new members of the workforce from moving to North Idaho.

What are some of the biggest changes to the state's economy you have seen in your 25 years serving as an Idaho senator?

A lot has been done to make Idaho’s economy stronger in the past few decades. Idaho was once a state primarily dependent on natural resources industries. These are still the backbone of our economy and I am fighting every day to ensure the federal government does not stifle logging, mining and farming. Idaho has since grown into a high-tech hub with an important role on the world stage. However, our state is not immune from national economic trends. Under President Trump, we had a booming economy with pro-growth policies that created jobs and grew businesses in Idaho and nationwide. Now, the U.S. economy is struggling; we lack workers; we face supply chain issues; and the list goes on and on. Thankfully our state has continued to implement policies that show that small businesses matter, but the reality is that we also need leadership at all levels of government, including the president, who believe that and support policies that achieve that. 

Why did you and the Idaho Department of Labor start Support Local Gems?

In 2020, Idaho’s small businesses faced unprecedented hardships, which resulted from extended and unnecessary forced closures and mandates. Immediately after the pandemic, struggles continued due to rampant inflation and supply chain issues. In an effort to continue to support them, I partnered with the Idaho Department of Commerce to launch Support Local Gems in 2020 to encourage Idahoans to shop and dine locally. Beyond the pandemic and the economic issues that have followed, I still think it’s important for Idahoans to support local because of the value these businesses have across our state. We should always look to support them.

How does supporting small local businesses support Idaho's stability?

Small businesses employ thousands of Idahoans, support our local communities in times of need and are the backbone of our economy. They are our neighbors, friends and family. Support for Idaho’s local gems ensures they stick around for years to come.

How do you think we compare with our neighboring states, in terms of business and economic growth and strength?

Idaho continues to be one of the best places to do business in the country because our commitment to community, entrepreneurial spirit and hard work are second to none. With Idahoans’ continued support of our small businesses, the Gem State will remain at the forefront of the best places to live and grow.

Where do you see our state in five or 10 years, economically speaking?

Idaho is the best place to do business and I firmly believe that will continue. My hope is that the federal government gets its act together so that policies forced down from the federal level help instead of hurt business. Our state legislature does a great job of using common sense, something lacking at the federal level, and I think that will continue in our state’s economic policies for years to come.

Anything else you would like to include?

Regardless of the day, I hope people continue to shop local and support the businesses that keep our communities running. Support Local Gems isn’t a one-day or one-month mission. It’s an everyday mission. I am grateful for all the support from businesses and others who helped make Support Local Gems 2024 a great success.

    Sen. Jim Risch is seen on the steps of the Idaho Capitol.