Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Stennett vies for 3rd Senate term

Education, wages central to Democrat’s re-election campaign

Express Staff Writer

Democrat Michelle Stennett is seeking a third term in the Idaho Senate. Express file photo

Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, wants to keep momentum going. As the Democratic minority leader for the Idaho Senate, Stennett is hoping for a third term as the District 26 representative.
    The 53-year-old Stennett has lived in Idaho for 26 years. She was married to the late Clint Stennett, who served as District 25 senator from 1994 to 2010, serving as Democratic minority leader for 10 of those years. (District 25 was later reformed as District 26.) Following complications from brain cancer in 2010, his position was filled by Michelle, who was appointed acting senator by Gov. Butch Otter. Her husband passed away in October of that year, and Michelle won his seat in the November 2010 election. She ran unopposed in 2012.
    Education funding is arguably Michelle Stennett’s biggest campaign issue. In an interview with the Idaho Mountain Express, she said more than 80 percent of the state’s 115 school districts applied for supplemental levies after not meeting their funding threshold during her last term. Instead of focusing on kindergarten through 12th grade, or even kindergarten to career, Stennett advocates for a “cradle to career” outlook.
    An increase in funding, over 5 percent, was signed-off on by the Joint Finance Appropriation Committee at the beginning of this year. Stennett says that’s a start, but the additional $66 million only matches 2008 levels—and there were fewer students then. Money isn’t the only answer to education improvements, she said, but there are 14,000 more students in the Idaho public school system than there were in 2008.
    “We were so far down [in funding levels,]” Stennett said. “One of the lowest [states] in the country.”
    Giving rural Idaho communities more autonomy to diversify their economic base, Stennett said, could be an answer toward a more “balanced demographic.”  While recreation is a large part of the Wood River Valley’s economic base and could diversifying the economy “in Richfield and Dietrich, it’s not so feasible.”
    The state minimum wage of $7.25 per hour prompts low retention rates of skilled Idaho laborers, Stennett said. Though there were some modest wage increases this year, 1 percent for state workers and almost 2.3 percent for the teacher minimum salary, Idaho’s minimum wage remaining at the federal minimum puts a strain on the general workforce, she believes.
    “We have put a moratorium on increasing state wages,” she said.
    Stennett said “honoring workers with a few more dollars” would be a “fiscally smarter” move for the state, because the cost of re-training new workers at a fast pace is a financial drain.
    Stennett is also firmly opposed to the state taking over the stewardship of federal lands. In an opinion piece she wrote on the Federal Lands Task Force, of which she is a member, she calls the study “futile” by deeming the initiative unconstitutional and expensive.
    “The federal government held the lands a long time before Idaho became a state on July 4, 1890,” she wrote. “It is quite difficult to ‘take back’ lands that we, as a state, have never owned.”
    She went on to argue that Idaho can’t afford to maintain additional lands and eventually they would have to be sold to the highest bidder.
    Stennett also opposes the $400,000 from the state’s General Fund allocated to Otter’s Wolf Depredation Board this year. She said she contested the language within the legislation that approves the money only for lethal wolf measures.
    “Monies from the General Fund should be used for [both lethal and nonlethal means],” she said.

Candidates Dale Ewersen and Michelle Stennett agree on some state issues and disagree on others.
Express graphic by Tony Barriatua

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