- Associated Press - Sunday, July 19, 2015

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - A year of cracking down on a top Idaho incentive designed to attract businesses has resulted in fewer applicants vying for the program.

Known as the workforce development training fund, the state program reimburses companies for training employees who would otherwise lose their job for not having the right specialized skills.

In fiscal year 2015, which ended in June, the Idaho Department of Labor approved more than $6 million to help train employees at 11 different businesses and universities.

The dollar figure is nearly double than what was allocated a year before, but the number of companies benefiting from the award is the lowest it’s been in five years.

Agency Director Ken Edmunds says the businesses have raised concerns that the new criteria is too strict. However, Edmunds says the reforms are here to stay.

Here’s what you need to know.

WHY IS THIS A BIG DEAL?

Since its inception in 1996, business recruiters have argued that the workforce training fund is a key tool that Idaho can use to attract out-of-state companies looking to expand or relocate. However, critics have countered that companies lack any recourse if they move out of state or close after receiving public money.

To help ease some of the concerns, the Department of Labor issued a series of reforms last year to help tighten the criteria on receiving the state the state funds. But a year of getting used to the new process resulted in a drop in interested applicants.

In fiscal year 2015, eight businesses received training grants and three went to universities and colleges. Three years ago, the agency approved grants for more than 30 businesses.

Edmunds says a stricter system is better for Idaho because it allows the agency to be more judicious in who gets state funds.

The goal is to train an employee with skills that can be easily transferable to another job or help that employee move up the company.

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WHAT WERE THE REFORMS?

Businesses still aren’t penalized if they close or leave the state shortly after receiving the taxpayer-funded grants. Instead, the agency implemented a new scoring matrix made up of six different evaluation areas -ranging from wages to transferability of the skills being taught. Businesses that score high receive larger reimbursements.

“It’s caused some challenges for economic developers,” Edmunds said. “But now we’re saying (to businesses), you say you have a need, prove it to us. I’ve gotten some feedback that it’s a little too stringent, but I don’t have a problem with that.”

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SO HOW DID THEY SCORE?

That remains a secret. The Associated Press requested information on how each company scored, including a breakdown of how each company ranked in all six evaluation areas, but the agency denied the entire request citing privacy concerns.

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OK, BUT DO WE KNOW WHO GOT GRANTS THIS YEAR?

Yes. Clif Bar and Amy’s Kitchen -two companies that recently moved to south-central Idaho- each received grants of more than $2 million. Frulact, a company from Portugal, was awarded $1.2 million to help train employees as it builds a fruit-processing plant in Rupert. The University of Idaho, North Idaho College and College of Western Idaho all received grants totaling around $1 million. Meanwhile, the rest of the grant money was split across companies in Ponderay, Sandpoint and Boise.

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WHO PAYS FOR THIS? ME?

The fund is financed through a portion of the unemployment insurance tax paid by business owners. However, Idaho’s unemployment tax rate has been steadily dropping since 2012. That means the training fund has been seeing a drop in cash flow. In 2011, the state had $16 million to help train employees. Next year, Edmunds expects that amount to be closer to $5 million.

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