Of 48 state legislative races in districts representing the Treasure Valley, 32 contests are not competitive next month, meaning incumbents or the newcomers who beat them in May primaries have no or token opposition Nov. 8. Another 12 races pit incumbents or their heavily favored successors against marginally active opponents.
Of the remaining four races that rate as competitive, by dint of campaign spending, three are in one district, West Boise’s District 15. Based on campaign spending by candidates there, Democrats appear to be waging an all-out effort to flip the all-Republican district outright. It is the only district wholly within the city of Boise that the Democrats do not hold.
The race for the district’s Senate seat pits second-term Republican incumbent Fred Martin, a retired educator and businessman, against Democrat Laura Metzler, a retired U.S. Postal Service administrative services worker.
In the district’s House races, the Seat A contest is a rematch of the 2014 race between incumbent Republican Lynn Luker, seeking his sixth term, and Democrat Steve Berch. The Seat B race puts first-term incumbent Republican Patrick McDonald, a retired state trooper and U.S. marshal, against Democrat Jake Ellis, a retired Boise Fire Department battalion chief.
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Outside that district, the other contested House race is the District 17 Seat B race between Democratic incumbent Sue Chew and Republican Tabby Jolley. Chew, who is seeking her sixth term, is a licensed pharmacist and part-time professor of biology. Tabby operates a business helping the disabled move from nursing facilities to independent living.
The most interesting contest is the Luker-Berch showdown. Berch lost to Luker in 2014 by 416 votes out of nearly 13,000 cast, and Berch is quick to note that the margin is smaller than the number of registered Democrats who did not vote. Both men are 63. Luker is a lawyer in private practice. Berch worked in project management for Hewlett-Packard in Boise from 1981 to 2008 and is now a contractor with the company.
Their most significant policy difference shows in their positions on the health care needs of the estimated 78,000 Idahoans unable to obtain health coverage. State lawmakers have wrestled with the issue for four years and it likely will dominate next year’s session as well.
Berch fully supports expanding Medicaid, a key component of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, to address the coverage gap. He said in the Statesman’s voter guide that the Legislature’s continued opposition to expansion “is costing taxpayers millions of dollars and inflicting real hardship on honest, deserving citizens and their families.”
Luker, in his voter guide response, said he opposed expanding traditional Medicaid, which he called a “fiscally unsustainable program burdened by inflexible rules and spiraling budgets.” He favors building on “resources already available in Idaho” while “exploring an acceptable Idaho-specific Medicaid waiver with flexibility to use innovative and cost-effective tools.”
The state already is implementing cost-saving health care reforms with help from a federal grant. A bill Luker co-sponsored at the end of last term sought to leverage those reforms with a modest injection of additional state funds. In 2015, Luker also was the House sponsor for legislation that authorized the direct primary care model in Idaho. Sometimes known as “concierge care,” patients pay a monthly retainer to providers instead of pay-as-you-go fees for services.
Berch said Luker had “taken legislative action that would have sent the state in a different direction and doesn’t even have the support of his own party.”
Luker responded that Berch makes “misrepresentations on what I did,” including that Luker’s bill “killed” Medicaid expansion.
Luker’s bill passed the House. On the session’s final day, the Senate substituted and adopted another bill authorizing state health officials to begin working out an alternative Medicaid expansion plan with the federal government. The House declined to take up the changed bill and it died.
Voters are “really frustrated with the Legislature not addressing this issue,” Berch said.
It clearly makes economic sense for the state to adopt Medicaid expansion.
Luker points to other possible coverage options emerging from the work of a legislative panel set up to review the gap group health care question, such as allocating some of the state’s annual share of tobacco settlement funds toward their care. He said such options could avoid what expansion opponents see as the “risk” of expanding Medicaid — the potential for the state to be on the hook for rising costs.
Along with health care, Berch identified education and the economy as top issues and said Luker has been “really absent” on them. “He’s not been a voice for education, he’s not been a voice for growing our economy,” he said.
Luker’s priorities include “adequately providing for constitutionally required functions of state government,” such as public education, while maintaining “fiscal responsibility” by not raising taxes and “minimizing burdensome government regulation.” He also cited a goal to “protect personal liberty from government overreach.”
Responding to Berch’s criticisms specifically, Luker cited his support for the multiyear salary increases for teachers the Legislature first approved in 2015 and the enhanced literacy program for K-3 grades approved this year.
I think we do need to be putting more money into education, but you have to cut back on programs or raise taxes.
DODGING THE PRESIDENT QUESTION
Berch declined to say whether he supports Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, saying that no one he has spoken to during the campaign “has said this is a factor when it comes to deciding who will represent them in the Idaho Legislature.”
“I think it’s fair to say that just about every single voter I’ve spoken to is disappointed with both parties at the national level,” he said. “Very few people are thrilled with the choices at the top of the ballot this year.”
Luker called Republican candidate Donald Trump “not my personal choice.” Clinton, he said, is not trustworthy and would “continue the Obama expansion of abusive executive orders and unrestrained agency actions that assault liberty.” He declined to endorse a candidate, but said Trump “offers more hope” in some policy areas and said voters “must prayerfully make their own decision on what choice is best for our nation.”
Through Oct. 10, the candidates had spent a combined $35,000 on the race, Berch spending $27,000 to Luker’s $8,000.
Other district races
The district’s House Seat B race has been far more expensive. Through Oct. 10, McDonald had spent $29,000 to Ellis’s $25,000. McDonald was appointed by Gov. Butch Otter in 2014 and won the seat later that year.
McDonald named as priorities a series of public defense reforms enacted by the Legislature in the spring. He served on the special committee that recommended improvements. He also named his support for improved STEM education programs to help make students “career ready.” He also prioritizes public safety and noted that his priorities did not require additional spending.
Ellis listed public education, employment and “keeping our public lands public” as top issues. He opposes as costly and unmanageable any state takeover of public lands management and said the state should review $1.7 billion in current sales tax exemptions to “hold the special interests accountable.”
On health care for the gap population, Ellis supports a plan endorsed by two governor-appointed panels to seek federal approval for a customized, state-managed Medicaid expansion plan that would rely on the cost-controlling reforms the state is now implementing.
McDonald said the state “has been wise to take its time” on expanding Medicaid amid the experience of same states that saw higher-than-expected enrollments and costs. He has reservations on expanding Medicaid to cover able-bodied childless adults and said Idaho should “tread carefully before we act like accepting this money doesn’t bind us in the future.” He did not name an option he supports.
McDonald is 69 and Ellis is 55. Neither would say whether they backed their party’s presidential nominee.
Nor, for that matter, would the district’s Senate candidates. Martin left the question blank, and Metzler said answering the question “does not serve to address the issues that I am hearing about from voters in my district.”
The candidates’ priorities are similar, with both citing education, employment and the economy. In Metzler’s case, better jobs and employment issues such as workplace gender equality hit home for her when, in her mid-20s, she found herself divorced, pregnant, unable to find work and declaring bankruptcy.
Martin also prioritized “lower taxes, personal responsibility and less government.” Metzler additionally named environmental issues and preserving access to public lands.
On Medicaid expansion, Martin cited his last-session vote for the Senate bill to seek a federal waiver for an Idaho-customized plan — the bill the House declined to take up.
Metzler supports Medicaid expansion and said bridging it into the state’s health insurance exchange “should be a priority for the Idaho Legislature.”
Martin is 66 and Metzler is 60. They have spent a combined $21,000 on the race, split almost equally.
Other races of note
Most legislative races in the 16 districts from Southern Idaho are noncompetitive or minimally competitive. In six races, current officeholders aren’t returning next year.
District 8, Boise, Custer, Gem. Lemhi and Valley counties
House Seat B: Dorothy Moon defeated incumbent Merrill Beyeler in the May Republican primary and is the easy favorite against a third-party candidate.
District 11, Southwest Canyon County
House Seat A: Scott Syme won a five-way Republican primary in May and faces little opposition from a Democratic opponent in the race to succeed Gayle Batt, who did not seek re-election.
District 13, Canyon County (Nampa)
Senate: Jeff Agenbroad won the Republican primary and faces little opposition from a Democratic opponent in the race to succeed Curt McKenzie, who is running for Supreme Court.
District 14, Northwest Ada County (Star, Eagle)
House Seat B: Gayann DeMordaunt won the Republican primary to succeed her husband, Reed, who did not seek re-election. She faces little opposition from a Democratic opponent.
District 23, Elmore, Owyhee and Twin Falls counties
House Seat A: Christy Zito defeated Republican incumbent Rich Wills in the May primary and faces little opposition from a Democratic opponent.
House Seat B: Megan Blanksma defeated incumbent Republican Pete Nielsen in the May primary and faces two third-party candidates in a minimally competitive race.