At a Feb. 24 City Club forum concerning strategies for protecting the middle class, two out of three panelists said that raising the minimum wage in Idaho is a "no-brainer."
Friday, Feb. 27, a bill will be introduced in the legislature that aims to raise Idaho's minimum wage to $8.25 in 2015, $9.25 in 2016, and pegs the minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index from there on out. The state's current minimum wage "locks [people] into a hierarchy of the haves and have-nots," said speaker and physician Ted Epperly.
Panelists Idaho Department of Commerce Director Jeff Sayer, Idaho Business for Education President and CEO Rod Gramer and Epperly batted about policy options for shoring up what is widely seen as the embattled center stratum of Idaho's economic spectrum. While Epperly and Gramer discussed ways Idaho can increase its number of college graduates and expand Medicaid, Sayer indicated that the key to saving Idaho's middle class is bringing outside capital to the Gem State.
"We will never be able to pay for all the things that we need with tax revenue," Sayer told attendees from the podium at the Owyhee.
Creating a business-friendly environment, Sayer said, is a matter of having a low cost of doing business and having infrastructure to meet the needs of today's high-paying jobs. That infrastructure isn't just roads and bridges, however, and Sayer mentioned that improving access to Idaho via air travel, expanding broadband access across the state and investing in community amenities like parks, greenbelts and open spaces, will help attract the business that pay higher wages.
He said one barrier to investing in such amenities—and here he broke with the official position of Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter—is the high barrier communities face when trying to fund them. In Idaho, two-thirds of voters must approve municipal debt. In Republican-led Utah, that barrier is a simple majority.
But Gramer said that Idaho faces an education crisis: In Idaho, those with just a high school diploma make 62 percent of what college graduates earn, and the vast majority of Idahoans—about 60 percent—do not hold four-year bachelors degrees.
"We're falling behind," he said.
Meanwhile, approximately 18 percent of Idahoans taking the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) are college-ready, he told the crowd, with many students requiring remediation in reading and mathematical skills.
"We need to connect the dots between education in our state and the economic wellbeing of our state," he said.
As for solutions, Gramer was ready with three: Idaho must implement and adhere to Idaho CORE Standards, see education as an investment rather than an expenditure, and target education funding to improve education outcomes.
Idaho's uninsured rate has dropped significantly in the last year, but according to Epperly, that doesn't mean Idaho is out of the woods in terms of the impact health care is and will have on the middle class.
"Your zip code has a greater impact on your health than your genetic code," he said.
Taking action on income inequality could take time, he said, but what Idaho can do right now to save money and improve the lot of its middle class by expanding Medicaid, which could save Idaho $17.3 million over existing program costs and create jobs. He also stressed personal responsibility: People with health care coverage still need to have a "usual source of care."