John Evans left the governorship in 1987 – 27 years ago. Roughly two-thirds of Idaho’s current population were either under the age of eighteen or not even born yet when he left office. Given Evans’ low public profile after leaving office, it isn’t surprising that many Idahoans don’t recall his many years of public service. Many of them probably associate him more closely as the face in advertisements for D.L. Evans Bank.
John Evans grew up in Malad. His grandfather David L. Evans served in the territorial legislature and, following statehood was Speaker of the House. Like his grandfather, John Evans was a Democrat and a banker. He was elected to the state senate in 1952, at the age of 27. In 1957, when the Democrats took control of the Senate, he became senate majority leader. He left the senate in 1959 and was elected mayor of Malad.
His years as a small town mayor, rancher and banker provided him with invaluable experience and skills that would serve him well when he returned to state government, again serving as a senator, then lieutenant governor and finally ten years as governor.
When Cecil Andrus resigned as governor to become Secretary of Interior in 1977, Evans became governor. His ten years as governor were during some of the most challenging times that Idaho has ever faced. In 1978 Idaho voters approved the 1% Initiative, which placed substantial restrictions on the ability of local governments to raise operating revenues. Then came the economic collapse. The state’s economy had little diversification and was heavily dependent upon natural resource based industries. In a perfect storm, the bottom dropped out of the timber, mining and agricultural industries. As a result, state tax revenues plummeted.
Using his experience as a mayor, Evans understood the need for basic governmental services at the state and local levels. As a mayor, he also understood the need for setting priorities and operating in a fiscally conservative manner. The result was a mixture of reducing non-essential services, cutting operating costs and increasing the flow of state revenues. He also created the Idaho Department of Commerce to help begin Idaho’s economic rebuilding. With a legislature heavily dominated by Republicans and led by staunch conservatives such as Tom Stivers in the house and Jim Risch in the senate, Evans had his work cut out for him. But he rose to the occasion, working with a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans, he kept the ship afloat and laid the groundwork for an economic recovery that led to some of the best years that Idaho’s economy has ever seen. In many ways, his relationship with a Republican legislature was more productive than that of some Republican governors. (more…)