Idaho state Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, and Republican challenger Dale Ewersen, a resident of Bellevue, were asked Wednesday night to prioritize finding for education, infrastructure improvement and reducing taxes. Both Stennett and Ewersen placed tax reduction last, but Stennett put education first and Ewersen prioritized infrastructure.
The question came during a Pizza and Politics forum hosted by the Idaho Mountain Express at Wood River High School. About 150 people attended the event.
Ewersen and Stennett both have a history of representation in the Wood River Valley. Stennett took over the seat held by her husband, Clint Stennett, in 2010 and has served as the District 26 senator ever since. Ewersen has served both as mayor and councilman of Bellevue.
A local insurance agent and business owner, Ewersen said he wants to keep income taxes low, protect Idaho’s water rights and fund roads and bridges.
Stennett gave a longer list of action items, but emphasized education spending, adequate wages and protection of land and natural resources.
The candidates were asked about the so-called “ag-gag” bill that criminalizes covert filming of Idaho farm operations. Ewersen said he supported it, calling the bill to prevent animal rights activists from documenting farm activity a violation of private property right.
“Animal abuse is never acceptable,” he said. “[But we] cannot have people or groups filming with the intent to ruin or defame your business.”
Stennett disagreed: “Why would you pass a bill to protect those bad actors?”
She said she knows many local farmers who would never harm their animals, but the state is prohibiting freedom of speech with the “ag-gag” bill. She said even Magic Valley yogurt operation Chobani came out against the bill, and its language was “criminalizing of the press.”
On the subject of public lands, Stennett came down firmly in favor of a Boulder-White Clouds National Monument and Ewersen opposed it.
Stennett said the monument designation represents a decade of work and cooperation among motorized vehicle users, environmentalists and everyone in between.
“All the research shows that communities [near] monuments see incremental economic gain,” she said.
Ewersen said the monument would create another layer of bureaucracy and asked Stennett what Custer County residents think about her assertions of financial gain. Most of the proposed monument would be in Custer County, and its county commission has opposed designation.
The candidates were also asked about Gov. Butch Otter’s decision to appeal the 9th Circuit Court’s gay marriage ruling on Oct. 15. Otter has alleged that the judges did not account for religious liberties and that the ruling conflicts with state law.
Stennett said state Attorney General Lawrence Wasden stopped pursuing an appeal. She said she was a proponent of permitting same-sex marriage.
Ewersen countered that Otter was elected to defend the Idaho Constitution and is obligated to fight for traditional marriage. However, Ewersen also said he believes in treating everyone fairly.
“When someone walks into my store, I don’t wonder what their orientation is,” he said. “I hope I can sell them a product and provide good customer service.”
Both candidates said water rights are important to them, though their methodology differs. Ewersen believes the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rules under the Clean Water Act hurt private landowners and create a money drain. He said he would like to create a “water legal defense fund” to protect Idaho’s water from out-of-state interests.
Stennett said she’s on water-related legislative councils and she’s reserving judgment on the proposed rules because the language is overly broad. She later asked Ewersen how his proposed legal defense fund would differ from Wasden’s water rights defense that is already funded. Ewersen said there is an “imminent threat of drought” and he would propose allocating money from the state’s general fund.
Ewersen asked Stennett about her public support of the Affordable Care Act, especially given rising health insurance premiums. She responded by saying that uninsured residents showing up in emergency rooms is one of the expenses “collapsing our local governments.”