HAILEY — District 26 legislative candidates at a Hailey forum Wednesday evening broadly agreed on three points: the importance of keeping public lands accessible, the necessity of raising teacher salaries to retain educators and the need to work across the political aisle while representing a purple district.
On other issues, there was some disagreement.
Six candidates spoke at the forum, hosted by the Idaho Mountain Express: incumbent Sen. Michelle Stennett, a Democrat from Ketchum; Senate candidate Julie Lynn, a Republican from Ketchum; House Seat A incumbent Rep. Steve Miller, a Republican from Fairfield; House Seat A challenger Muffy Davis, a Democrat from Ketchum; House Seat B incumbent Rep. Sally Toone, a Democrat from Gooding; and House Seat B challenger Mike McFadyen, a Republican from Fairfield.
Across the board, candidates agreed that Idaho must increase pay to keep qualified teachers in the state, particularly in rural places.
“It’s just fiscally not smart to go ahead and not pay people so they can go somewhere else for better pay and benefits,” Stennett said.
McFadyen, Davis, and Miller echoed the same sentiment: the state must do more for its educators.
“I feel for the teachers, especially because they’re not seeing the mass amount of money ... going to education,” said McFadyen, who also named school safety as a priority of his campaign. “With all the money in the system, I want to know where it’s going. The teachers deserve better than that.”
Toone agreed on the importance of funding teachers, but told the crowd that education is a “very complex” issue.
“We have to do better, but that doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice any entity of” education, Toone said. “We can collaborate. We can create networks. We can share projects. We can do better.”
If re-elected, Toone added, she plans to introduce again a bill that would offer student loan forgiveness to teachers in rural areas.
With a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid bringing health care to the forefront of the 2018 election, much of the conversation Wednesday centered around how best to provide health insurance to Idahoans who are not currently covered.
Davis said she would vote yes on Proposition 2.
“If elected and if the public chooses and passes Medicaid expansion, I assure you that I will vote and find a way to fund it,” Davis said.
Her opponent, Miller, told the crowd he had voted in favor of Medicaid expansion in the past — but “it’s not just Medicaid expansion that we’re looking for,” Miller said. “We’re looking for better ways to improve healthcare.” Miller added that the state can still decide to apply for two waivers from the federal government, one of which would let Idahoans with serious health conditions qualify for Medicaid.
McFadyen said his stance on expanding Medicaid depends on how the state pays for it.
“If they can prove to me they have a way to finance it, I’d be all for it,” McFadyen said. “I am not going to vote for something that we don’t have a way to finance it.”
If Proposition 2 passes, Toone said, she will support Medicaid expansion.
“It is my job to represent the district as a legislator, and I will vote according to the people of Idaho,” Toone said. “If the people of Idaho vote for it, it’s our job to figure it out. Because we’re your voice.”
Lynn, for whom health care is a primary platform point, voiced support for another potential avenue for insuring more Idahoans: the ongoing push by Gov. Butch Otter and Lt. Gov. Brad Little to let Idaho offer insurance plans that don’t fully comply with the Affordable Care Act.
“The individual health insurance market is sustainable as it now exists,” Lynn said. “One solution would be to allow people to buy health insurance plans that meet their needs.”
There was broad support among candidates for keeping public lands accessible to hunters, hikers and other recreationists.
“Our precious lands are under attack,” Davis said. While Toone and McFadyen agreed with each other on the issue of access, they disagreed over whether the state should take control of some federal public lands.
“I like the idea, but we’ve got to be really careful,” McFadyen said. “We’ve got to be really selective of what we get and what we take control of because we get ownership of the problems that come with it.”
Toone said she saw the transfer of federal lands to state ownership as unconstitutional and unrealistic.
“Idaho can’t afford to pay for things like firefighting,” she said.
Prison crowding and drug crisis Several crowd questions directed at Stennett and Lynn asked the opponents’ views on how Idaho should deal with prevalent drug use and prison overcrowding in the state.
Both candidates spoke to a need for greater support for people suffering from drug addiction or mental illness.
“I think that Idaho’s a ways behind in dealing with mental health and drug addiction and we need to do more,” Lynn said. “People need to be treated rather than punished... We need to find a way to compassionately help these people get their lives back.”
Stennett noted the resources that the state already has in place, such as crisis centers in Twin Falls and elsewhere and specialty courts for people dealing with drug addiction. She said she sees a need, however, for better programs within Idaho’s school systems.
To alleviate its bursting prison population, Stennett said, the state should take a look at mandatory minimums and other sentencing practices.
“We have to navigate through that criminalization and the penalties and the mandatory minimums we have in the system...,” Stennett said, “because we can’t afford to do it this way.”