Speaking in Hailey on Wednesday night, lieutenant governor candidate Steve Yates said 2018 will be a seminal year for Idaho politics.
Gov. Butch Otter won’t be on a ballot in Idaho for the first time since the late 1980s, and his decision to retire has spawned bruising primary fights to replace him and to become the next lieutenant governor. Idaho’s closed primaries will be held May 15.
Lt. Gov. Brad Little is running for governor, against U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, and Boise businessman Tommy Ahlquist. Two Democrats are vying for the seat as well—A.J. Balukoff, who ran in 2014, and Paulette Jordan, a north Idaho lawmaker who resigned her seat last month to campaign.
Yates, a former Bush administration official and chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, is one of six Republicans and two Democrats seeking to replace Little.
With less than two months to go, it seems that vast swaths of voters haven’t made up their minds. An Idaho Politics Weekly poll this week found one-third of respondents hadn’t decided on their pick for governor, and two-thirds hadn’t decided on the lieutenant governor’s race.
On Wednesday, Yates questioned the poll’s conclusion that two-thirds of Republican voters are undecided because its sample of 617 voters included Democrats, but ceded the point that the race hasn’t narrowed yet.
Yates met with Republican voters at a meeting of the Blaine County Republican Party Central Committee on Wednesday night.
“We’re really at the front end of the rush on this race,” he said.
As of the end of last year, Yates had amassed the most fundraising, with $245,000 in donations. His four leading opponents raised $264,000 combined. The next reporting date for campaign fundraising isn’t until May 8.
That fundraising edge will help Yates with name recognition among undecideds, he said.
“I’m confident that we have more resources than all of the other campaigns combined,” he said. “Hopefully, [voters will] remember the name Yates.”
If elected, he said he wants elected leaders to conduct an honest review of state government and its policies.
“2018 is an enormous time of opportunity for our state,” he said. “Trying to define how we go from here is an interesting and exciting challenge. Idaho as a state and as a government is due for a checkup, in my opinion.”
He offered his views on what the state should do differently.
An audience member Wednesday asked about rankings that place Idaho near the bottom in the nation in per-capita education funding, and Yates responded by saying Idaho would only move up to 45th in the nation if the state’s entire general fund budget—about $3.6 billion—was pumped into education. This year, general fund spending on the K-12 school system will amount to about $1.8 billion.
Therefore, he said, Idaho should look for solutions that aren’t tied to additional spending. He said the state must examine spending, the education curriculum and how school districts manage the system. He said custom solutions could test different approaches.
“I don’t think an Ada County solution is going to work in Wilder or Bonners Ferry,” he said. “We have to look extra carefully at how much money is going outside that teacher-student relationship.”
On school safety, Yates said he did not view guns as a root problem of mass shootings at schools in America. In February, 17 people were killed in a shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., prompting national debate over reforming gun laws.
The focus on new laws at the state or national level is misguided, he said. Rather, schools could better protect themselves by instructing teachers to identify and report potential troubled children, and allowing volunteers—like retired cops or military veterans—to patrol schools. Those volunteers could concealed carry guns, or they could carry a Taser or bear spray, he said.
“I don’t believe the problem is a gun,” Yates said. “The problem is broken people. Something as novel as bear spray would knock one of these [shooters] down long enough. We now have an opportunity to plan.”
Focusing on illegal immigration, Yates said the state could work to improve the legal immigration system while verifying people who are here already. Undocumented immigrants who commit crimes should be deported, he said.
“I cannot and will not support an ongoing flow of who knows who,” he said. “Law enforcement has better things to do than round people up. As lieutenant governor, I don’t get magic fairy dust to say, ‘Here’s how it will be.’ We do need our industries to run.”
On health care, Yates said the waiver bill that was pulled from the House of Representatives on Wednesday offers an opportunity for lawmakers to do more homework after the legislative session ends. The bill would have sought two federal waivers to cover about half the 78,000 people in the Medicaid gap.
He said state leaders could push for more deregulation, including relaxing rules that prevent small businesses from forming their own insurance pools, similar to how a larger company of 200 to 2,000 employees can.
“We really need to get out from under the structure of Obamacare,” he said. “There’s an awful lot of health care that doesn’t need to run through the funnel of health insurance. I think the problem is larger than the gap.”