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Sen. Michelle Stennett, Eric Parker

Candidates for the District 26 seat in the Idaho Senate met in Hailey to discuss a wide-ranging array of issues Thursday night, marking the first local debate of the 2020 general election.

Incumbent Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, and Eric Parker, a Republican from Hailey, found common ground on some statewide and national issues—including abortion and protests associated with the Black Lives Matter movement—while differing on matters like firearm restrictions and funding of Medicaid expansion.

The debate was hosted by Central Idaho for Liberty, a self-described conservative organization that has endorsed Parker. Each candidate provided his or her own moderator, with the two moderators taking turns asking questions of both candidates.

Stennett’s chosen moderator asked the candidates their positions on property tax relief, challenges in local water management, the repair of outdated local roads and bridges, the funding of Medicaid expansion and the role of local control in addressing COVID-19. She also asked Parker about his involvement in the armed standoff with federal agents near the ranch of Nevada cattleman Cliven Bundy in 2014, for which he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction charge.

Questions from Parker’s chosen moderator touched on federal land management, the ethics of a candidate accepting donations from lobbyists and special interest groups, restrictions on firearms, late-term and “partial-birth” abortion, “rioting by [Black Lives Matter] and antifa” and tax increases.

Here’s what the candidates had to say about some of those issues.

Taxes

Both candidates’ moderators asked questions related to taxes, with Stennett’s inquiring about property tax relief—a prominent issue in recent legislative sessions—and Parker’s asking whether Stennett would support increasing taxes.

Parker said he would like to see Idaho bring in “new forms of business and enterprise” to help fund Idaho schools, by taking measures such as legalizing the growth of hemp.

“The idea that we can’t get a hemp bill passed in an ag state drives me crazy,” Parker said. “I just think we need to get out of the old line of thinking and bring some new problem-solving to the capitol.”

Stennett said she would advocate for measures that provide property tax relief to seniors, in particular, and would support alleviating the tax burden on residential taxpayers by providing a more equal “balance” between residential property taxes and commercial and agricultural property taxes.

“The commercial property tax has not been impacted like the residential,” she said. “This burden is partly … because we have so many people moving into the state. Unfortunately, because we don’t charge them for any kind of impact fees for that development, it is the burden of those who already live here to take on that expense.”

Firearms

Stennett, in response to a question from Parker’s moderator about firearm restrictions, noted that Idaho is the second-least restricted state in the U.S. when it comes to firearms.

“However, would you want someone to drive a car without knowing how to drive it or having any training?” she said. “Or would you want somebody to perform surgery on you without having any training?

“I believe in the Second Amendment, but I believe there is a way to be much safer through some proper training.”

Parker countered that driving a car or performing surgery do not fall under “constitutionally protected conduct.”

“Yes, training is good and should be encouraged and be affordable,” he said. “I would even like to see the state and counties offer that through our law enforcement.

“But when we mandate those things, we’re infringing on the law of the land.”

Public lands

Stennett, in response to a question from Parker’s moderator, noted that Idaho agreed not to seek control of federal public lands when it entered statehood, but said she felt personally that “there could be better management of federal lands,” especially in light of wildfires across the West in recent years.

She pointed to collaboratives across the state that bring local, state and federal voices together with the aim of improving public land management, creating jobs, boosting selective logging and improving the health of forests. Stennett said she had spoken with Idaho’s congressional representatives about crafting a new federal land management plan.

Parker agreed that management of federal lands could be improved, and expressed appreciation for initiatives that encourage cooperation among federal, state and local stakeholders. Idaho should “start pushing timber sales,” Parker said, particularly in northern Idaho communities, and make sure the federal government maintains public access to federal land.

“I believe our state could do a little bit more to hold their feet to the fire and make sure they’re keeping our accesses open,” Parker said.

Upholding the law

“I would take two more misdemeanor obstructions to stand up for the First Amendment,” Parker said, when asked by Stennett’s moderator whether he would follow all of Idaho’s laws if elected to the Legislature.

“Yes, I would follow the law [if elected],” Parker continued. “But an unjust law is an illegal law. What I’ll do is try to make sure that doesn’t happen, that those unjust laws don’t get put in place.”

Stennett noted that legislators, when sworn into office, swear to obey the law.

“There are some [laws] I would disagree with or hope to make better or alter or change,” Stennett said. “But our jobs are to do that in the proper fashion. Until then, we have to uphold it.”

Medicaid expansion

In 2018, 61 percent of Idaho voters approved the expansion of Medicaid. How—and whether—the state should fund that expansion has been a point of contention in the Idaho statehouse.

When asked by Stennett’s moderator whether he would defend Medicaid expansion if elected to office, Parker said he would need to read a specific bill on the matter before taking a stance on it. He added that he believes the ballot initiative process—through which Medicaid expansion was approved and made law by voters—“needs to come with funding.”

“If we’re going to put an initiative on the table it should come with funding instead of ‘If the people say “We want this,” figure it out,’” Parker said. “I think it has to come with some sort of mechanism as to how the proposed bill would be funded.”

Stennett cited some of the health care-related challenges facing Idaho—such as a shortage of doctors and “very poor” mental health services—as reasons for defending and supporting the expansion of Medicaid, as approved by the voters.

“When you do pass an initiative and it is the will of the people, it is the responsibility of the Legislature to budget for it,” she said. “When we’re representing our people, we should be representing the will of our district.”

Water management

Parker, in response to a question from Stennett’s moderator about the water management challenges in District 26, said he was not aware of specific issues regarding water management, but would research the topic and speak to constituents to learn their opinions.

“I can admit when I don’t know something,” he said. “I’m an electrician and I’m asking you to hire me to send me to the statehouse.”

Stennett cited “some really wonderful strides” that the state has made in water management, such as the replenishment of the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer. She also named as one of the upcoming challenges the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty, a 1961 treaty between the U.S. and Canada regarding the operation of dams in the Columbia River basin; the treaty is approaching renewal.

“It is hugely important to negotiate the new terms,” she said, adding that the negotiation process will include conversations at both the regional and international level.

Other issues

Two questions from Parker’s moderator on hot-button issues—abortion access and recent protests associated with the Black Lives Matter movement—produced similar answers from both Stennett and Parker.

Both candidates said they would not support bills allowing late-term or “partial-birth” abortion, as the question described it, with Stennett noting that no such bill had ever come before the Legislature. As long as Roe v. Wade is in effect nationally, Stennett said, Idaho must uphold access to legal abortion.

“I would argue that these are horribly difficult decisions that families need to make with their physician and it is not up to us,” she said. “What we do have the authority to do in Idaho is to advocate for the children who are born.”

Parker said he agreed that Idaho must uphold federal abortion laws, but said he would like to see the state “do what we can to create an environment where [abortion] is not necessary.”

Both candidates, in response to a question from Parker’s moderator about “rioting by [Black Lives Matter] and antifa,” said they supported peaceful protesting but did not support property damage.

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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