TWIN FALLS — Every two years, Idaho’s 70 state House and 35 Senate seats are back on the ballot. This year, the victor in more than a third of them is already a foregone conclusion.
Of the 105 seats, 37 have only one candidate running for the job. In only 14 of the state’s 35 districts are all three legislative seats contested, and two of those districts are right here.
Legislative District 26, which unites Democratic-leaning Blaine County with Republican Camas, Gooding and Lincoln counties, is represented by two Democrats and one Republican, one of only three districts in Idaho to send a bipartisan delegation to the Capitol. This year, a Democratic senator and a Republican House member are running for re-election, both facing opponents from the other party, while two candidates run for the seat that Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, is vacating. Pence has been in office since 2004.
District 24, which covers the city of Twin Falls and some of its immediate surroundings, has been represented by Republicans in the Legislature for quite a while. Some years, the Democrats haven’t even run a candidate to oppose some of the incumbents. In 2014, though, Cathy Talkington got 46.5 percent of the vote in her run against incumbent Rep. Steve Hartgen — the most votes a Democratic legislative candidate has gotten here in a long time — and she is running against him again. Two other Democrats are taking on Republican incumbents, too.
All three Republican incumbents in District 27, which covers Cassia and Minidoka counties, are running for re-election unopposed. In District 25, which covers Jerome County plus most of Twin Falls County excluding the city and part of the West End, the only contested race is for the Senate seat, where incumbent Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, faces Democrat Scott McClure.
Deborah Silver, a former county Democratic Party chairwoman who ran for state controller in 2014, is running for Senate this year against incumbent Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, who was a city councilman in Twin Falls before his election to the Senate in 2010.
Dale Varney, a UPS driver who has been active in the local labor movement and Democratic Party, is challenging Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, who was a city councilman and mayor in Twin Falls for years and was elected to the House in 2012. Varney ran for the same seat and lost in 2014.
State Democratic Party spokesman Dean Ferguson said Twin Falls is “truly one of the most exciting parts of the state” for his party right now. He sounded optimistic about the party’s chances of picking up some seats.
“The voters ‘round there, they’re becoming a little bit skeptical of the same old kind of person who gets elected on just promises of no taxes and … jewels and treasures for everyone at the same time,” Ferguson said. “And what they’re looking for are candidates who recognize you need a good education system to help the economy and … invest in roads and bridges and internet capabilities.”
Silver said she considers herself a moderate; one of her reasons to run is wanting more balance.
“This area used to be represented by moderates, and that’s kind of changed,” Silver said. “I think I bring a moderate attitude to most things.”
On the spectrum of Idaho Republican politics, Hartgen, Clow and Heider generally fall into the “establishment” group, usually aligned with the governor and much of the legislative leadership and left of a harder-right faction of the party. Hartgen, who beat a right-wing challenger in the May primary, described himself as “a common sense, conservative Republican who looks for practical solutions” and called Talkington a “classic liberal Democrat.”
“I’m ideological in sort of a broad sense,” Hartgen said. “I’m Republican, I’m conservative, particularly on fiscal matters. But I’m not hugely ideological.”
Three major issues for the candidates on both sides are education funding, Medicaid expansion and public lands. Idaho cut education spending during the recession, leading to a proliferation of local tax levies across the state to make up for the lack of money coming from Boise. For the past two sessions, lawmakers have been focused on making up for this, in 2015 passing a “career ladder” teacher pay plan to raise wages over five years and this year bringing per-classroom operational funding back to where it was before the cuts.
Clow, who is on the House Education Committee, said education would remain one of his focuses if he is re-elected; he wants to fund the career ladder fully and work on making minor tweaks to improve it. Heider, too, said he expects the Legislature to continue to fund the career ladder next year.
“I think everybody recognizes that education of our young people is tremendously important,” he said.
Democrats, though, have been arguing for bigger increases.
“It’s not enough if we’ve just come back to 2009 levels without accounting for the additional students,” Silver said, adding that teacher pay is still lower than the surrounding states.
Talkington, a retired teacher, said school started in Twin Falls this year with 14 open teaching positions. She said the state should accelerate implementation of the career ladder and do more to encourage people to go to college to become teachers.
“2009 does not reflect the kind of education we want for Twin Falls,” she said. “We have 18,000 more students.”
Hartgen said overall education spending has gone up 15 percent over the past two years, and that Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra is requesting a 6.6 percent hike for next year.
“If 20 percent over three years is not enough, what do you want?” he asked.
Like many other Republican-run states, Idaho has not expanded Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act, leaving an estimated 78,000 uninsured Idahoans who fall into the “Medicaid gap” where they don’t qualify for Medicaid but also don’t make enough to qualify for subsidized health insurance on the state exchange. The GOP caucus is divided, with some opposed to expansion and others open to a state-designed plan for which they could apply for a waiver and still get federal funding.
Clow said his support for expansion would be “totally conditional on getting a federal waiver.” He said he wants to emphasize primary care and moving to a managed care model for Medicaid rather than the traditional fee-for-service model.
“Medicaid is a terrible program,” he said. “It’s better than nothing, but it’s not a good program. It’s not a health-care system. It’s reactionary. It’s a reimbursement program.”
Hartgen said he wants to focus on using state money to get the uninsured who are chronically ill primary care coverage through community health clinics; he estimates that would be about 30,000 of the 78,000 — people with conditions like heart disease and diabetes. He said he supports asset testing for such a program, and he opposes Medicaid expansion.
“What about our moral obligation to our grandkids not to leave them with 20 or 30 or 40 trillion dollars more of debt?” he asked.
Idaho Democrats have pushed expansion for the past few years.
“It’s the working poor,” Silver said. “They don’t have a lot of solutions, and we’re keeping something from them. We take advantage of all sorts of federal programs.”
Varney expressed a similar opinion.
“We are sending away our tax dollars to the federal government, and they’re just sitting there, and they’re not coming back, for what reason?” he said. “Is it to benefit the people, or is it because the Republican Party wants to stand on the fact that they disagree with the Obama administration?”
Talkington said it is both a moral and an economic question, pointing to the money the counties spend on indigent care and the millions of dollars in unpaid medical debt hospitals like St. Luke’s have to write off.
“Two-thirds of them (in the gap) are working Idahoans who make too little to buy their own insurance and make too much to qualify for Medicaid,” she said. “It’s costing us money. … Besides the humanitarian issue, it’s an economic issue.”
The Legislature passed a resolution in 2013 demanding the federal government transfer title of Idaho’s federal lands to the state, and an interim committee of lawmakers held hearings throughout the state in 2014. The committee released a report in 2015 that stressed collaborative management and recommended against joining Utah’s proposed lawsuit against the federal government.
Since then, many Republicans in Idaho have spoken in support of increased state management but backed off on the idea of a title transfer. Democrats have often opposed these efforts, questioning how the state would pay and worrying this could lead to a transfer of ownership and some of the lands being sold or access restricted.
“How are we going to pay for it?” Varney asked. “We’re going to talk about a tax cut, but we’re going to take over our public lands. We’re going to sell them off?”
Talkington said the current land management system is “terribly broken” and that diversion of much of the federal money that should go toward restoration and management into firefighting is partly to blame, but the state can’t afford to take over.
“Quite frankly the state doesn’t have the money to do that, unless they’re going to take it from somewhere else,” Talkington said. “And I think there’s great concern that there’s an underlying motive for doing this.”
Supporters of more state management argue the state would do a better job of management, reducing the number of wildfires by doing more logging and clearing. They say fears the land would be sold or closed off are wrong.
“She knows that the state is working forward to create a model of cooperative management of federal lands, and yet she presents me as if I’m somehow trying to engineer some backroom, secret cabal of clandestine land sales,” Hartgen said.
Heider views management rather than changing ownership as the solution.
“There’s not one of us who says we’re going to take over … all the federal land in the state of Idaho,” Heider said.
District 26 is represented by two Democrats who won their last re-elections by comfortable majorities and a Republican, Rep. Steve Miller of Fairfield, who won both of his elections by less than 2 percent of the vote.
However, one of those Democrats is stepping down. The candidates for Pence’s open seat are Republican Alex Sutter, an insurance sales representative who ran against Pence in 2010, and Democrat Sally Toone, who, like Pence, is a farmer and retired teacher.
For the Senate, Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, faces Dale Ewersen, a Bellevue resident who has been active in city government and the Republican Party; he ran against her and lost in 2014. Miller, a rancher, faces Democrat Kathleen Eder, who was postmaster in Hailey for about 30 years.
The district is one of the state GOP’s focuses, along with a couple of other swing districts in the Lewiston and Boise areas. The party opened a field office in Hailey for the election season. State Republican Party Executive Director David Johnston praised the party’s candidates and said he is optimistic about picking up Pence’s old seat and confident Ewersen will do well, too.
“That district wants more Republican leadership to be able to give them a better voice in Boise than they currently have,” he said.
The big issues in District 26 are similar to District 24, with many of the candidates mentioning education, public lands and health coverage as issues they hear about a lot on the campaign trail.
“Education is always top of the list of people’s concerns,” Stennett said.
“Education is the priority,” Toone said. “It needs to be the priority in the state of Idaho.”
Toone said improvements are needed in a number of areas, including funding and partnerships with employers. A well educated work force will help attract more businesses, she said.
“You have the educated work force, you have jobs, and we’re falling behind a little bit right now,” Toone said. “We need to seek those out.”
Stennett said the state has made some progress on education over the past two sessions, praising initiatives such as increased funding for literacy and STEM education. She said there is a lot more to do, however, noting the high number of supplemental levies and teacher pay levels still lower than many other states’.
“All I know is, we need to be more competitive,” she said. “Our wages are not competitive.”
Ewersen, too, said education funding is the issue he hears about most from voters. He said he wants to keep funding the career ladder and to raise education funding as long as the state can afford it. Currently, state revenues are coming in higher than projected.
Sutter is also interested in education policy, saying he would like school districts to have more freedom to decide how they spend the money they get from the state and possibly reforms to the formula for how discretionary dollars are given out. He stressed spending money better, rather than spending more.
“Competition and choice breeds innovation and solutions that weren’t thought of before,” he said. “I think the status quo of our current educational system is going to kill it.”
Eder said protecting access to public lands is probably the biggest issue for her, noting that tourism and outdoor recreation are a major economic driver in the district and saying she opposes the movement to transfer them to state control.
“I haven’t heard anyone really in favor of that,” she said.
Miller supports a bigger state role in land management. If nobody else does it, he said, he would consider introducing a bill similar to one Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, did in 2016 spelling out how lands would be managed under state control.
“I don’t know anybody and especially me that wants to sell that land to the highest bidder … I’m an old school multiple-use guy,” Miller said.
Ewersen, too, said he wants to see more collaborative state/federal management of federal public lands. He said he doesn’t propose transferring ownership to the state, but he thinks a greater emphasis on multiple use and logging and grazing would help reduce the number of catastrophic fires.
“It’s just a matter of common sense to me to reduce the fuel loads,” he said.
Eder, who has been on hospital boards, said extending health coverage to people in the gap is another of her priorities.
“I think Idahoans need something to happen,” she said. “There’s just too many people that are in the gap.”
Stennett said she hopes the legislative work group that is studying the “Medicaid gap” during the interim comes up with a solution to help the uninsured that can pass. She is especially concerned about the military veterans in her district who are uninsured.
“We need to be taking better care of them,” she said.
Sutter said he is “not a fan of expanding Medicaid carte blanche” but he could support a more market-based solution that would bring in the insurance companies to extend coverage to more people.
“Eventually, Idaho is going to have to pick up the tab, and we don’t have the dollars to do that without a significant increase in taxes,” he said.
Miller said the “medical home” model, where a patient works with a team of care providers, has shown promise. This was a key part of Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s proposal to extend primary care coverage to the uninsured that was introduced in the Legislature this year but didn’t move forward.
Miller said he isn’t for straight Medicaid expansion. If it’s going to happen, he said, it would have to be done with a waiver and in a way that works in Idaho and protects the state’s taxpayers.
“With a waivered expansion,” he said, “then you can do it the way you want to do it.”