Tommy Ahlquist hopes voters don’t want a politician running the state.
“I believe that there’s just a hunger out there for new ideas and a fresh approach to government,” Ahlquist, who is running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, said Wednesday in an interview with the Times-News editorial board Wednesday.
Despite his lack of government experience, Ahlquist said he would do a better job, saying “you hear a lot of rhetoric and talk” in politics often, “but you don’t see action.”
“I don’t think career politicians are always the answer,” he said. “I think when you’re in real life business you surround yourself with good people, you demand excellence, you surround yourself with results and data and you get a lot done.”
Ahlquist, 49, a doctor and developer who grew up in Utah and has lived in Idaho for decades and resides in the Boise area, is running for the nomination against current Lt. Gov. Brad Little and current U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador. Incumbent Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter is not running for re-election.
The primary is in May 2018, and Ahlquist is a political newcomer, unlike his opponents who have been familiar names in Idaho politics for years. He announced his run at the beginning of March and started off with a 97-city tour of the state and a blitz of TV and social media advertising. He donated $378,000 of his own money to his campaign as well as raising $575,000, and pointed to his fundraising haul and the enthusiasm he has seen on the campaign trail as signs some voters want change. (Little and Labrador have also raised hundreds of thousands; their campaigns had more cash on hand as of June 30 since Ahlquist has spent more so far.)
Increasing his name recognition, Ahlquist said, was the first step. He says he will roll out more detailed policy proposals this fall as well as continuing to campaign.
“It’s still Idaho,” he said. “No matter how much money or how many ads you run, people still want to shake your hand, they want to know who you are, they want to trust you.”
One of the things he learned about on his tour, he said, was the fiscal pressures faced by Idaho’s small cities and school districts, giving examples such as rising health insurance costs, schools that can’t afford to maintain their buildings and cities that face federal fines but can’t afford to upgrade their water treatment facilities. He said he “knew it was bad because you hear it’s bad,” but meeting with local officials and school superintendents really drove it home.
“I guess the severity of the problem in smaller Idaho, rural Idaho, was a real shock to me,” he said.
On the other hand, he said, he was impressed by the educational innovations he saw in some districts.
Some of his goals were he to win would include a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s tax code, reducing regulations on businesses and market-oriented health care policies. Ahlquist favors lowering Idaho’s income tax rate. (How much an individual or business pays depends on a variety of factors, but the state’s top 7.4 percent rate is higher than others in the region.) However, he wants it done in the context of a comprehensive overhaul of all the state’s taxes, similar to what Utah did about a decade ago.
“You can’t have a personal income tax at 7.4 with 5 percent and zero around you and expect to be competitive,” Ahlquist said. “I know because I’ve heard it for 10 years. ... We’ve got to flatten it, we’ve got to broaden, we’ve got to make it more simple to attract businesses because we’re losing right now.”
On education, Ahlquist thinks the state should do more on defining student achievement goals and that the state Department of Education and Board of Education should play a bigger role in defining general policy, while also giving districts more flexibility. However, he is skeptical about raising education spending much more unless revenue increases, saying it already accounts for a significant share of the state’s general fund spending.
“How do you go any farther when you’re already at 63 percent and you’ve got a bunch of other infrastructure needs?” he said.
Ahlquist is a critic of the Affordable Care Act, which he blames for increased health insurance costs. He favors measures such as seeking federal waivers to give the state more control over Medicaid, reducing mandates as to what health insurance policies are required to cover and using the “bully pulpit of the governor’s office” to raise awareness of the true cost of health care services versus what consumers pay and pressure health insurance companies to reduce costs. He wants Idaho to become a model for conservative, state-based health care policy.
“California’s not going to figure this out,” he said. “Michigan’s not going to figure this out. Idaho can figure this out. We’re conservative, we’re small, we’re nimble, we can figure out health care and show an example for the rest of the nation of ‘Hey, this is how we solved our problems in a conservative way.’”
One big-picture change he wants to see is the governor doing more to set an agenda before the session, working with lawmakers and local officials to solicit ideas.
“You go into a session with an agenda, with leadership and vision from the executive branch of government saying ‘Hey, here’s where we need to go on health care, here’s where we need to go on education,’” he said.
Ahlquist was GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s co-finance chairman in the state, and he wrote in Rubio in the general election. However Ahlquist said he is glad Hillary Clinton lost.
“I think that I’m still happy with what’s happening though,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of spin on what’s happening, but you look at the Supreme Court nominee and the rollback of mandates. I wish the communication style was different, but who would have thought we would have a chance to do some of the things that are happening in the U.S. right now?”