Lawmakers could be asked to tackle a gas tax and workforce training in next year’s legislative session. Those were two issues that came up at the Southwest Idaho Legislative Summit Sept. 23, one of several meetings the Idaho Chamber Alliance is conducting around the state to highlight its priorities for the 2017 Legislature.
The Alliance’s legislative priorities are posted on its website. It is focusing on several issues it has in the past, including lowering taxes for businesses and protecting urban renewal districts. At the Southwest Idaho Legislative Summit Sept. 23 the organization invited legislators and policy advocates to explain some of the other issues they’re hearing about.
Bad reviews on sites such as Yelp and Google can deter customers, and business owners have asked if the Idaho Legislature can help protect them.
It can’t, said Bradlee Frazer, a partner at Hawley Troxell who specializes in intellectual property and internet issues.
“How would you react to a law that makes negative online reviews illegal?” Frazer said. “Not well. It would obviously be a violation of the 1st Amendment. The truth is there is no good legislative answer.”
There are laws that protect businesses from defamation, but defamation lawsuits often take more than a year to reach a conclusion, Frazer said. That isn’t fast enough for several businesses that notice a downturn in traffic as the result of negative online reviews.
“Back in the old days it was a lot harder to defame someone because you would have to publicly announce it or seek out a publication to publish it, but now anyone that is disgruntled can pull out their mobile device on the way out of the door and write anything they want,” Frazer said.
But there are ways to mitigate the damage.
The first and often easiest way, is to build a search engine optimization strategy that pushes poor reviews out of sight. Flooding the internet with other information about the company, such as a company history, employee bios, service lists and positive reviews, moves bad reviews to the second or third page of a Google search.
“Search engine optimization can make poor reviews less relevant by pushing them below the fold,” Frazer said.
This technique usually takes about six months to complete, Frazer said.
There’s another, more difficult, option: pleading directly with the disgruntled customer to remove the comment.
“Sometimes you have to negotiate with the terrorist,” Frazer said. “Nobody likes to hear that because it goes against our sense of playground justice, but this can be the fastest way to get that comment removed.”
It can be hard to find the person who filed the complaint; several review sites allow users to comment anonymously and don’t often disclose a writer’s identity to a business that has filed a complaint.
Forensic software can help a company learn the identity of a commenter, or sometimes there are hints that can lead a business owner to an individual’s identity such as reviewing disparaging emails and phone calls.
Once the writer is found, the business can approach with a peace offering and attempt to enter a non-disparagement agreement that will have the writer remove the comment and refrain from posting others.
“If a legislative approach is desired, I don’t know how to do it,” Frazer said. “It would have to be narrow in scope so that it doesn’t limit free speech.”
Idaho Associated General Contractors will propose a gas tax to pay for public infrastructure improvements.
Idaho AGC CEO Wayne Hammon proposed a 10 cent gas tax that would be eliminated if gas rose above the price of $3 a gallon.
“The price of gas is ridiculously low right now, so let’s take advantage of it,” Hammon said. “But let’s not make it permanent so that when gas rises we will drop this tax effortlessly, without even requiring a vote.”
Idaho’s gas tax was increased by 7 cents in 2015 to help repair damaged roads and bridges around Idaho, but that only covered the cost of about half of the work that Idaho’s infrastructure needed, Hammon said.
The money can only be used for existing infrastructure, meaning that it can’t go to projects that would alleviate traffic concerns such as the creation of a third lane on the interstate between Caldwell and Nampa.
Transportationinvestment.org closely monitored the passing of the 7 cent gas tax increase in 2015 and wrote that it wouldn’t be enough to cover the state’s needs. Idaho’s transportation budget was $262 million short of what it needed to “operate, preserve and restore” Idaho’s infrastructure, according to the AGC. The tax increase raised less than $100 million a year.
“Nobody noticed the 7 cent increase and I wish I would have asked for 15 cents because then I wouldn’t be back here today,” Hammon said.
Hammon hasn’t found a legislator to sponsor the bill. In 2013, Idaho AGC created maps that clearly outlined where poor infrastructure was affecting businesses. At the legislative summit Sept. 23, Hammon advised business owners to let their legislators know if the gas tax is an issue they care about.
Idaho will have 95,000 unfilled positions by 2025 and two-thirds of those will require some form of certification, according to Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa.
The state’s educational institutions aren’t turning out enough students with the degrees or certifications needed to meet employers’ demands. Cameron Pickett, technician program manager at Western States Equipment Company, said the company has 50 positions open now – the most it has ever had.
“We are all feeling the pain of the skills gap,” Pickett said.
Career technical education is one of the fastest ways to build a skilled workforce. But there aren’t enough teachers to carry out the training that businesses need.
The Idaho Division of Career Technical Education will ask the Legislature for a 5 percent budget increase to expand 16 of the programs it has identified as having the longest waiting list and highest rate of job placement.
The extra $2.4 million increase would be used to attract more teachers and to buy classroom equipment for technical colleges and high schools around the state, and would increase the number of graduates from these programs from 138 per year to 248 per year.
These graduates would then be qualified to step into positions that pay $33,000 to $78,000.
“These jobs are critical to our future,” said Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmet.
The 16 programs that would be expanded feed into the industries of business, healthcare, information technology, manufacturing and transportation.
The Legislature expanded the budget of the Idaho Division of Career Technical Education by 10 percent in this year’s legislative session.
“When trying to get a company to move here, we are finding more and more that access to a skilled workforce is what closes a deal either in our favor or against it,” said Charity Nelson, project and strategy manager with the Boise Valley Economic Partnership.
The Chamber Alliance is made up of 20 Chambers of Commerce from around the state. It is hosting a summit in six parts of the state before Oct. 13 in order to prepare its members for the legislative session.