Friday, July 25, 2014

Democrat aims to unseat Gov. Otter

With a background in education, Balukoff wants to reform state

Express Staff Writer

A.J. Balukoff

    Despite the fact that Idaho hasn’t had a Democratic governor in 19 years, A.J. Balukoff is hopeful. The affable Boise resident, with a background in business and personal accountantship, will face off against incumbent Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, a Republican, in the November elections.
    Balukoff is tripling every campaign donation he receives with his own personal funds, citing name recognition as his biggest hurdle. That’s why Balukoff and his team held a meet-and-greet campaign stop Monday at the Sawtooth Brewery in Ketchum. Balukoff has a young staff adept in social-media networking, imperative to his Herculean task of becoming known throughout the 80,000-plus-square-mile area of the Gem State.
    With Otter pursuing a third term in office, mobilizing is crucial, Balukoff said. While he might not be able to travel from Jerome to Boundary County in one day, his Facebook and Twitter messages sure can.
    Balukoff has lived in Idaho since 1982, raising his family in Boise. An active participant in the Boise School District, he eventually became chairman of the school board in the state’s capital. He’s a harsh critic of the inequalities within Idaho’s education system, citing the state’s low national rankings for standardized testing, student achievement and college attendance.
    “We’ve gone downhill and that’s one of the things I want to turn around,” Balukoff said in an interview with the Idaho Mountain Express.

If they want to stop gun violence, they ought to beef up mental-health services.”
A.J. Balukoff
Governor candidate

    “We have about 40 districts that hold school only four days a week,” he said. “You can’t say that we’re providing that uniform and thorough system of education that our constitution calls for.”
    The shorter weeks mean longer school days for teachers and students. With Lewiston’s school district losing staff and students to nearby Clarkston, in Washington state, Balukoff said he’d seek to even out the discrepancies between smaller schools districts and the richly resourced ones like Boise and Blaine County.
    Balukoff is also opposed to Idaho’s recently enacted guns-on-campus bill, which Otter signed into effect March 12 of this year. Balukoff characterizes himself as pro-Second Amendment, but not without regulation.
    “If they want to stop gun violence, they ought to beef up mental-health services,” Balukoff said. “That’s the answer to gun violence.”
    Balukoff’s assessment follows more than five years of funding cuts and personnel losses to Idaho’s mental-health infrastructure. Almost 500 mentally ill residents lost state medical coverage in the summer of 2010 during cuts to the Idaho Health and Welfare Department. That year, the state also cut more than 100 jobs of mental-health professionals and closed nine rural clinics. When Otter refused the Medicaid expansion component of the much-debated Affordable Care Act, funding for mental-health services inevitably declined. While Balukoff doesn’t agree with all aspects of the Affordable Care Act, he said he believes it’s foolish to reject the Medicaid component.
    For households that make under $26,000 annually, supporting the Affordable Care Act would allow poorer residents to receive preemptive care from a doctor, rather than emergency care at a hospital, which is also less cost-effective, Balukoff said. The federal government would pay 90 percent of these residents’ medical costs, if state elects to insure them, he said.
“Right now, we are caring for those people in the most inefficient and expensive place possible,” Balukoff said. “If they had a doctor or even a nurse practitioner, [it] would take care of most of these problems.”
Channeling more federal dollars into the state isn’t a bone of contention for Balukoff, unlike his opponent. He also supports the proposed Boulder-White Clouds National Monument—a plan to give special federal status to some 500,000 acres of land north of Ketchum—on the basis of environmental protection. Recalling a time he hiked Castle Peak in the White Clouds, Balukoff said he can’t rationalize mining the mountain for natural resources.
    “We came over [a hill] and you see Castle Peak right in front of you: a big, white beautiful mountain against the blue sky,” he said. “Just a spectacular view. I don’t care how much molybdenum is there. I just don’t think it’s worth destroying Castle Peak.”
    Though his environmental leanings are indicative of his more-liberal party ticket, Balukoff hopes to transcend the two-party system in the upcoming election by finding common ground with both sides of the aisle.
    “The important thing is to have respectful, open conversations about things that seem to divide us,” he said.

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