Editor’s note: This is one of a series of profiles of candidates running in Legislative District 26 this year.
If voters reward her with a new term in the Legislature, Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, will arrive in Boise in January to begin a legislative session unlike any she’s had in her eight years in office.
For one thing, a new governor will be sworn in for the first time since 2007, when Gov. Butch Otter began his first term. Otter is retiring this year, and either Republican Lt. Gov. Brad Little or Democrat Paulette Jordan will replace him.
With Little seeking higher office, Idaho will have a new lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate during the legislative session. Republican Janice McGeachin and Democrat Kristin Collum are vying to replace Little.
The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which does much of the legwork on setting the state budget each year, will have two new co-chairs come January. Co-Chairs Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, are retiring this year.
Stennett said she expects the new replacements will move cautiously as the legislative session gets underway in 2019, and everyone gets situated to tackle major issues when it gains steam as the weeks progress.
“At least a third of the Legislature will turn over,” Stennett said. “It will be moving a little more hesitatingly. That just takes some time.”
Stennett is running for a fifth term in the Senate representing Legislative District 26, which encompasses Blaine, Lincoln, Gooding and Camas counties. She is being challenged by Ketchum Republican Julie Lynn.
Stennett was first appointed to the seat held by her late husband, Clint, in 2010. She won election to that seat that year, and has won re-election ever since. If re-elected, she said she anticipates continuing her work as one of two lawmakers on the Idaho Workforce Development Council, which Otter created in October 2017.
She serves on the council’s grants subcommittee, which targets funding for rural communities to help address a projected gap of 49,000 jobs by 2024 that lack a skilled workforce.
“Our more urban cities are doing really well, but that isn’t translating to our rural areas,” Stennett said. “We’ve got to start training for all levels—not just four-year degrees.”
Once the Legislature reconvenes, Stennett said she anticipates a new fight over the possible relocation of the Idaho Transportation Department district office in Shoshone. ITD has been pressing to move the District 4 headquarters to a location between Twin Falls and Jerome, closer to the district’s major population center. The office has been in Shoshone for decades, and represents a major employer in the city.
Stennett said she, Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, and Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield, have been opposed to the move. The Legislature blocked funding for the move in the 2018 session, and she said they’ll pick up the fight again in 2019.
“They kept wanting to move it to Twin,” Stennett said. “We hate to see employers going to places that are well-employed.”
She said the new governor will have to bring a vision for Idaho’s public school system, working to build off the five-year plan implemented during Otter’s tenure.
“Maybe we will wait and see what flushes out after the election’s over,” she said. “It’s going to be different. Right now, what I try to do is create a relationship with both sides.”
Stennett said she anticipates working with either Little or Jordan, as well as her Republican colleagues in the Senate. As one of six Democrats in a 35-seat chamber, working with members of the opposing party is a prerequisite.
“For me, it’s more than issues, it’s people, too,” Stennett said. “I’ve worked with Brad Little for years. I know that I see the same kind of courtesy is extended to Paulette Jordan. It’s not always us vs. them. Eighty percent of what we do in the Legislature right now is across party lines. There’s the 20 percent that we disagree on that you hear about.”
For Democrats, a dispute over the politics of one bill can’t preclude them from seeking support from the majority party on another proposal, she said.
“If we disagree on one issue, we’re going to be co-sponsors on the next one,” Stennett said.
However controversial or heated a debate can be, Stennett said, she strives to be upfront and transparent about her motivations and positions.
“I’m one that really likes to do my homework,” she said. “The more I know, the more educated I am, the better vote I can take. That’s how I approach it.
“There’s no smoke and mirrors. I have a reputation for being incredibly fair. I don’t want to blindside my chairman. That transparency is so important.”
Still, Stennett is hopeful that Democrats will fare better in legislative contests this November, and provide more balance in party representation in the House and Senate.
She said the two toughest votes she cast in the 2018 session were on a tax conformity bill and on a bill amending Idaho’s trespassing laws.
The tax conformity bill included a $200 million tax cut, in part offsetting an expected $100 million increase to Idaho taxpayers from the federal tax reform bill that Congress passed last year.
Stennett said the state government should be saving money to pay for the effects of population growth as new residents flood into the state.
“We’re as much as $300 million behind on road and infrastructure,” she said. “Are we prepared for more impact to our infrastructure? It was just a really hard negotiation. They ended up winning that. They were just going to give tax breaks and they weren’t really going to pay attention to infrastructure.”
She said the trespass law was poorly written, and the issue could have been resolved by increasing fines.
Republican lawmakers went beyond that, however, and Stennett said the resulting law will create headaches for law enforcement officers tasked with settling disputes among neighbors that are sure to arise from muddled definitions and unclear directions.
“It’s poor policy-making,” she said. “It’s much harder to amend something than to do it right the first time. We had really, really strong private property rights already.”