The Idaho Business Review is interviewing candidates who will face off in the upcoming primary elections for the governor’s office. This week, we feature conversations with former state Rep. Paulette Jordan, D-Plummer, and with Boise businessman A.J. Balukoff. Both are running in the Democratic primary May 15 in a race that will determine the party’s nominee in Idaho’s November 6 election.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Dill was not available for interviews.
Paulette Jordan was serving her second term in the Idaho House of Representatives from Plummer before she left the Legislature in February to run for governor as a Democrat. Jordan, a graduate of the University of Washington, is a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe who served on the Coeur d’Alene tribal council for three years.
Jordan has a long history of serving veterans as a founding member of local Auxiliary of Post 5 in Plummer, and was involved in community service though the board of the Northwest Disability Action Center; the Idaho Heritage Trust; the Democratic National Convention, and the Idaho Young Democrats.
She has served several terms as a board member and finance chair for the National Indian Gaming Association and as co-chairman of the gaming committee for the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.
What could you do as governor to help Idaho businesses thrive?
Most of the presidents who have been able to cut back on our deficits in this country have been Democrats. Democrats are good at business because we invest in education; we know that investing in education from ages zero through five and through higher education helps the basic function of any growing business or economy. If you have kids who are well-educated, literate, trained and have skills, there are positions that most corporations or businesses will need them for.
If you’re going to have a strong return on investment, your initial investment should be in the future generations of Idaho. That is how to have long-term growth.
I serve as a national business leader in the national Indian gaming association, and we’ve been able to build up to $32 billion dollars a year, and that’s not even with the value added with construction contracts and other corporate contracts. The ultimate goal there is to educate a population and continue to create jobs. We have amassed over 700,000 jobs.
Initially every single dollar we made was put back into scholarship programs and into the education pipeline. I’m part of the structure; I benefited from that return. They helped me get through high school and then college and then me coming back to my community to reinvest that education into building community, building businesses.
It does come down to investing in the bottom line. That will impact the local communities. We, the Coeur d’Alene tribe, created a nice 8a contract (a Small Business Administration program that helps tribes win government contracts) with the federal government, and we were able to build in roughly $400 million with contracts with the federal government, which we won, but the opportunity was lost because we didn’t have the trained workforce.
We tried getting people locally, getting people from Washington and Oregon, we even created an education program to expedite training, to pay people to go to school and get trained. We were paying competitive salaries, but not enough. We lost the contract. That was a huge learning experience for me because I was just seeing with my own eyes in the front lines, basically that we didn’t have the skilled workers to fill these jobs.
We’ve seen that with 7,000 unfilled STEM jobs in Idaho.
How could the governor help Idaho business?
It’s about investment and bottom lines. The Democrat party wants to have a free marketplace where business can have access to less regulation. I like regulation when it comes to the environment, but it depends on what business we are talking about.
In Idaho, we have opportunities to get on the front lines of innovation. We have a good percentage of Idaho that is timber, and salvageable timber that has been burned over the wildfire season. All this wood can be recovered; this is how we can move away from steel. We have an opportunity to build with cross-laminated timber, and that is an advancement in the industry we haven’t taken advantage of. As governor I would make sure we build in codes that would support using CLT, creating incentives for local building companies to use CLT instead of steel. We’re finding out CLT is just as strong as steel.
It’s already done in Oregon.
This is one industry where we have an opportunity to be leaders on innovation. And also in energy, I have been really invested in looking at how Idaho can be a leading innovator using our research institutions, the INL, the U of I, Boise State, using research they’ve been doing and broadening that out so we become main resource for exporting energy.
Idaho Power, while they have hydropower as a main resource, 40 percent of that energy comes from fossil fuel companies from outside of our state. If we’re going to be true stewards of the nation, if people really look at the future of the energy, they know many business and organizations are leaning toward 100 percent clean energy renewables.
Most businesses in Idaho are looking at more efficient and competitive energy, and I would look at how this could benefit more businesses in the state, not just ones that want to come into the state and expand solar or geothermal or biomass, but also creating incentives for INL as a research institution, looking at their micro-reactors and how the energy they generate could serve as a base for our state. They consider themselves a clean energy source. There are ways I see us implementing the future of clean energy renewables.
How would you as governor encourage making Idaho into a leader in this area?
Most business set goals for themselves for clean energy, but are we incentivizing them? I would work with the Public Utilities Commission and our legislative body to incentivize businesses to go into clean energy renewables. Many states have incentivized. We need an agreement that we are trying to push toward long-term sustainability, especially as it comes to water.
Idaho needs to be at the front line of those conversations, especially with the Columbia River treaty coming up, and how we are really at the base of that.
What’s the most important challenge facing business people in Idaho today?
We lack infrastructure; we don’t have rural broadband access, a lot of our main streets are blighted with vacant stores, and we lack rural transportation access. That’s part of my vision, moving forward. I am from rural Idaho, I’m in the thick of this, I see the needs immediately. I see why we need to connect rural areas to urban population bases, which means building on the main streets, because the main streets don’t see the activity they need.
When you connect rural to the urban you’ll see that activity, and that means roads, bridges, building up rural broadband access. We had opportunities during the Obama administration because he amped up rural support, and rural grants. But I don’t know how many counties were able to benefit from that and I imagine not many, because we need to have a governor who would actually fight for those dollars to come into Idaho. You need to go into every single rural community, you have to be aggressive, you need to have someone who has that kind of leadership, I have watched many of our rural counties apply but not gain support.
As governor, what could you do about the lack of broadband coverage?
I could work with the telecommunications companies. I’ve been trying to develop a strategy for them to unite and come up with a solution of their own without it having to be legislated.
But if nothing is done, the governor can start laying this out. Local business would benefit and use rural broadband, or fiber optics, and it’s not just about business; rural broadband is about EMT services, education, simple protection for the people of Idaho.
When I had these conversations a few years back, I presented a bill to try to unilaterally coordinate telecom companies like Verizon, Frontier and AT&T to build them into a base to tack on an idea or solution moving forward.
That’s how we rolled out the phone system here in Idaho, with ultimately everyone paying a surcharge or small fee for access to a phone. Why not build a way for us to allow every single community in Idaho to have access to rural broadband by paying a small charge? In rural Idaho, you’ll pay the small charge because you want local telecommunication companies to work with you. Everything comes at a cost. People might see that as a tax, but it would help local businesses or help people who wanted to take online courses, or do an online business from home if you are a single mother.
How about public transportation? Can a governor address that?
It has become really bureaucratic in my experience. I’m going to have to take take a hard look at funding sources. I started getting involved in rural transportation because there are a couple of veterans who said to me, “what can you do to help us receive access to transportation to get to veterans’ services, to work, to go to the store? They were looking for connectivity.
When I started looking into it, I figured out there is a lot of politics at play, and there is a lack of access to money. It takes a lot of money to keep these transportation routes going. And it takes marketing. We have CityLink in my own community, and I developed a CityLink corridor through Coeur d’Alene, and that was successful. I’ve learned when we’re not connecting these rural bus route systems, then the disconnect is often funding. Who is going to pay for what? Community upon community is trying to decide, are you paying for this or are we?
I sat in some in these conversations locally with rural planning departments, people who were on the boards that would serve rural routes, the Idaho Department of Transportation, and what I found is we don’t have a state that supports the public transit system. They are all relying on community or federal grants. The state needs to prioritize. As governor, this is where I would prioritize funding to go to rural transportation systems to connect them. T
The other thing is filling these buses. We need to make sure people know about rural transportation. This would benefit businesses, and the University of Idaho, and it would help people with disabilities, and the elderly, and our veterans.
How can the governor help the state develop the skilled workforce businesses need?
One thing would be to partner with local unions. Unions are doing a great job with building apprenticeship programs with local high schools to help them get right into their careers. The other strategy is to build local business into research institutions and high schools, develop partnerships with them.
I like this because it’s a way for students to receive an education, and then go into their career, and it also benefits business because they know they are basically growing their base. There are a lot of opportunities when you train and mentor your workforce. I’ve seen a lot of success with that. If you take the time to invest, the return will be more than you can imagine.
What’s the solution to problems around immigration?
The governor can be the champion to build the pathway forward for undocumented immigrants. As governor, I would have a platform to lobby at the national level to make sure there is complete comprehensive reform for immigrants to become documented.
They’re already investing in us now. As governor, I see the challenge of being licensed. If we want every individual, including the undocumented, to have access to a vehicle and be productive, they need access to a driver’s license, because that way they can have insurance.
In Idaho, an undocumented person doesn’t have access to a driver’s license; that’s a major concern for many because they are not insured.
Another issue I see with the undocumented community is access to higher education. We have some brilliant kids and they want to go into the medical fields, they want to be lawyers, they’re still seen as out-of-state students. We could declare them in-state students so they could have in-state tuition.
And then there’s access to health care. I have been talking to people in rural communities, and I’ve heard too many unfortunate stories where people had relatives who were undocumented and wouldn’t seek health care. They were worried they would be detained, and they couldn’t afford the care. That’s why we need to expand Medicaid. This would help business too; it would be a plus for everybody.
So how could the next Idaho governor tackle rising healthcare costs?
I am pro-universal health care. I want to see care for all. Expanding Medicaid is the first step. Local business would definitely benefit. And when it comes down to negotiating cost, I’d like to see businesses negotiate with health care companies and see what their packages look like.
How would the state pay for a health care program that covered everybody?
I can’t speak for all businesses, but a lot of businesses aren’t always able to always able to afford health insurance. Employees of small businesses tell me they have to cut back to less than full time, because otherwise the business would have to pay for health care. So the employee has to pay for insurance.
I’d like to see local businesses to have at least the support to offer health care, whether that’s through Medicaid expansion in the state. It would be a huge cost savings. Most businesses want expanded Medicaid. I have not heard of many who don’t. Its just the Republican Party as a base who has said expanding Medicaid would cost more, and people are drinking the Kool Aid.
As governor, I definitely want to make sure we have access to health care for all. For those who are saying no, it costs too much, we would have seen a major cost savings this year if we had expanded Medicaid, to the tune of of hundreds of millions of dollars.
It would not only be a cost savings for Idaho, it would help people get coverage again, and that would be a major help to local counties, because local counties see their funds hit up by indigent care, millions and millions of dollars of it. Local hospitals take a hard hit when their patients don’t have health insurance, and they kick those bills on the state, and if the state doesn’t cover it in the catastrophic fund, it’s kicked back to the counties. Businesses see that hit them locally.
What do you think about the current business tax exemptions in Idaho? Which ones, if any, do you think should be removed?
I am big on ethics and want to make sure we take a hard look at every single tax exemption we give, and then if they don’t have sunsets, we should make sure they are being re-addressed.
Are the tax exemptions aimed at attracting business good for the state?
No. For a lot of businesses, it night help for them to develop. That would have been a great incentive for clean energy. It depends on what we are incentivizing and what we are encouraging. I’d like to look at the bottom line and see how are those really helping Idaho. Are they working? I want to take a hard look at everything vs. just continuing to go along with it.
We have to look at what is working for Idaho and what is not, and who is receiving the greater tax cut, and is that necessary? Instead giving millions of dollars of tax cuts to large corporations, we want to invest in housing and health care. That’s a wise position to take. If you’re a corporation or a big business like HP you want to make sure you’re building the community around you.
The tax incentives are good to a degree to alleviate some costs, but as governor this is one of the initiatives I would take, to see who are we exempting and how much and when does it sunset, and does it sunset?
I actually promoted a bill in the Idaho House to create a committee to look at sunsetting some of these tax exemptions, and to take a hard look at what we are exempting and what we’re not. We would see if they are really benefiting Idaho. We might not be looking individuals who really deserve tax exemptions. Industries change.
What is governor’s role in providing leadership on firearms?
The governor should have a strong role. It’s important for the governor to say we will not carry over the national conversation. We see they want to mandate teachers having guns in classrooms, and this is where we have a stake to say this is not the culture we want in Idaho.
We’re listening to every community, whether you are a gun owner or not. Myself being a gun owner, many parents like me want to make sure our kids kids are safe. The teachers’ job is to teach, and why would we expect them to be front line defenders? Front line defenders are school resource officers.
The governor’s role is to ensure we are applying the law. We have state law that is not being applied locally; as leaders you should be ensuring that local law enforcement is adhering to the law to a T. Locally there are not a lot who are investigating when there is a crime, many will overlook people being shot at. And unfortunately there are gun owners who are not being held accountable. We have to make sure we are holding everyone accountable to the furthest extent of the law.
We are a gun manufacturing state. What I tell people honestly is while many people are proud that we are a gun state, let’s be the most responsible and accountable state in the nation, because people need to know that when they come to Idaho it’s not the Wild West. It’s a responsible state where they can feel safe, families can know their children are secure, especially if they drop them off at school or college; we want to create this culture that people are comfortable with.
Why do you want to be governor?
I feel that I am needed. In every facet of government, the voices that people want to hear are voices of integrity, voices that are honest and sincere and hardworking, not privileged essentially.
When people see the current leadership, they see people who are out of touch, who aren’t willing to listen to the broad majority’s needs and concerns. That’s what I represent, is the needs and concerns. By listening to the voices of the people.
It isn’t helping when you are going down this horrible pipeline of a single-majority system built of cronyism and corruption, beholden to corporations, That’s not the way our society wants to go, and I don’t think it benefits our next generation. We need to get back to being a balanced state again. That’s why we are running, we the people. This race is run by the people, for the people. Once I am elected governor, everyone will have a seat at the table, not just lobbyists and corporations and certain specific special interests.
I am from rural Idaho, I am the mother of two beautiful boys who drive me every day to see every child in Idaho who deserves a better future. As a mom you know you have to fight for everybody. It is our time, it is the next generation’s time, we have to see improvements; otherwise we’ll see continue down the hill the rest of the nation is going to. We’re 50th in a lot of things, the bottom of the barrel, and our kids deserve better. Our future deserves better. We could be world-class in education and business, the best in water quality and air quality; we could make sure we have front-line energy opportunities available, we could be as resourceful as possible without wasting taxpayer dollars like unfortunately we are doing now.
We give money to entities who don’t need it, like the $200 million tax cut. Instead of investing that in Idaho, we gave it away. We have to be intentional and listen to the needs of the people. I want Idaho to win. As governor I want to make sure we are the best state in the nation, that we are leading the conversation, making sure we’re providing every opportunity available for our children, because they are the future.