(The Center Square) – Chris Cargill, 41, is leaving his 13-year role as director of Washington Policy Center’s office in Spokane to get a sister think tank launched in Idaho later this year.
Cargill will be the first president of Mountain States Policy Center that will represent Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. He leaves for the new opportunity on Sept. 16 and Mountain West is expected to be up and running in October.
“This doesn’t mean we take the place or compete with any other organization,” Cargill told The Center Square. "But there are policy issues that impact all of us – the Snake River Dams, for example. Our states are connected – and we’ll work to expand our impact each year.”
Previously there were national think tanks and state think tanks. Cargill said regional think tanks are a relatively new concept, with Mountain States and Southwest Public Policy the frontrunners of their kind.
“I believe there will be more because we need to have additional free market voices,” said Cargill. “We’re in the ideas business, and if we don’t have more groups and more ideas, we risk losing the country.”
Although Cargill will initially be the organization’s only employee, he plans to hire additional staff as funds are raised. He will work under a 17-member board of directors and have a contract research team of five.
“We also hope to have regional advisory boards that can help us identify issues that we should be tracking,” he said.
Mountain States will operate with the motto “Free Markets First” out of the belief that the free market, not government, is responsible for the greatest advancements in the history of the world, said Cargill.
“The government does not create prosperity – our citizens do,” he said. “Before any government solution is put forward, the free market should be given a chance to succeed. The free-market solution should come first. Putting the free market first means putting families, children and small businesses first. Putting the free market first means doing everything possible to arrive at solutions that are from the people rather than from the government.”
Toward that end, he said Mountain States, while based in Idaho, will engage on issues that affect the wider region.
“Those who live in Eastern Washington, North Idaho and Western Montana know they have more in common with each other than with Seattle or any other large metropolitan area,” said Cargill.
Making the jump to a new challenge feels comfortable to Cargill, who said he “grew up straddling the border” and his family now spends most of their time in North Idaho, even building a home in Hayden.
He believes that Idaho has a “refreshing sense of optimism” something that is slowly eroding in Washington.
“There is a growing sense that Washington has lost its way,” he said. “I think you see that in population trends. I think you see it in polling. And heck, you see it on the streets of the state’s largest cities almost every day. It’s hard to escape the decay. And when anyone tries to suggest ways to make it better, they are ridiculed or even ignored.”
Conversely, Cargill said Idaho is seeing exponential growth and there is still robust discussions about potential policies even when there is disagreement.
“The people and the leadership in Idaho are, for the most part, conciliatory,” he said.
Cargill doesn’t know the exact number of people who are moving across the border to Idaho because they are fed up with Washington’s crime and homelessness problems, but he believes it is high.
“While it’s not a scientific estimate, it seems like one out of every two people I know are moving to Idaho,” he said.
According to Cargill, Mountain States is committed to the idea of Federalism and regional impact.
“It is the power of our organization. It is what sets us apart,” he said. “In the United States, those who don't like the laws of their town or state can move. That is why our Founding Fathers delegated so much power to the states.”
Although Mountain States is still in its infancy, the organization is already weighing in on current controversies.
Cargill said Gov. Brad Little’s call for a special session on Thursday to adopt tax rebates and lower the income tax will help Idaho’s working families and make the state more competitive.
“With a record amount of revenue, Mountain States has recommended lowering the state income tax to a flat, across-the-board rate, and perhaps doing away with it altogether,” he said. “We are delighted to see the state move in this direction.”
Little and legislative leaders have called a Sept. 1 session to address uses for the state’s record $2 billion projected budget.
Little said inflation has had “crushing impacts” on families and schools.
In addition to considering tax cuts for all, Little wants to pour $410 into education through an ongoing sales tax transfer, the single largest spending commitment to education in state history. The plan puts $330 million into K-12 schools to offset the costs of inflation, and $80 million into training for vocational training to provide businesses with a skilled workforce.
Many Idaho residents believe Little is proposing more money for education to head off support for the Quality Education Act, a citizen’s initiative to raise income taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals. In order to raise an estimated $323 million for K-12 spending, the ballot measure significantly raises the top rate in Idaho’s graduated income tax, from 6.0% to 10.9%.
“While the rate would only apply to those making $250,000 a year, that is a very small threshold,” said Cargill. “The 10.9% is the second highest in the country behind California and it ties New York for second. The difference is that the higher rates in those states kick in at much higher income levels.”
Idaho has been increasing education funding each and every year, so that it now makes up more than 50% of the total state budget, he said. From a policy standpoint, raising taxes while trying to lower the overall tax burden makes no sense, he said.
Cargill adds that increased education spending does not necessarily lead to better outcomes.
“It will be important for the legislature to confirm the money is being spent wisely," he said. “Based on research about what's best for children, Mountain States recommends any increases in education spending go directly toward funding students, not systems."