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Little, Chmelik spar in lieutenant governor debate

Challenger Jim Chmelik, left, and Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little prepare to debate Friday night on the "Idaho Debates," broadcast live on Idaho Public Television.  (Idaho Public TV)
Challenger Jim Chmelik, left, and Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little prepare to debate Friday night on the "Idaho Debates," broadcast live on Idaho Public Television. (Idaho Public TV)

BOISE – In a televised debate Friday night, Idaho County Commissioner Jim Chmelik outlined a very different role for Idaho’s lieutenant governor that he said he wants to play if he succeeds in defeating GOP Lt. Gov. Brad Little in the May 20 primary election.

“I would like to use the position of lieutenant governor the same way I’ve used the county commissioner position,” he said – to travel around the state and nation urging support for transfer of federal public lands to states.

“I believe you have a lot more pull as lieutenant governor than you do as a county commissioner,” Chmelik declared in a debate broadcast statewide on Idaho Public Television.

Little, a rancher and four-term state senator who’s been the state’s lieutenant governor since 2009, said if re-elected, he’ll continue to focus on economic development. “We absolutely have to build the economy,” he said. “It’s being the facilitator, whether it’s with government or with business to foster those jobs and foster that growth, because we need that.”

Little said he was just in Burley the day before, meeting with a group of Idaho investors who “want to start a facility there that’s going to create 100 jobs.” Little said the lieutenant governor can help groups like that with “issues with the Department of Environmental Quality, issues with the federal government. … Because I’m in both the legislative branch and the executive branch, I am well-suited to do that type of work.”

Idaho’s lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate when it’s in session, voting only when there’s a tie, and fills in for the governor when the governor is out of state or incapacitated. Beyond that, his official duties are those assigned to him by the governor. The job pays just $35,700 a year now; that’ll rise to $42,275 next year.

The two Republicans were asked how they’d carry out their stated belief in limited government by making changes at the state level. “That’s a tough one to say, because we’re so entrenched with the federal government,” Chmelik said. “We pretty much can’t do anything in the state without dealing with the federal government.”

Pressed for an answer, Chmelik said, “All the business taxes we have, what the DEQ requires, the Fish and Game. … I believe with those departments, we need to make some real changes. I believe that they need to step up and start listening.”

Little said many would like to see the state have more control over Medicaid, but said that’s “unfortunately” controlled by the federal government. He said he’d like to see more decisions pushed down to the local level in areas like transportation.

“In regard to Fish and Game, Fish and Game is protected by the Constitution,” Little said. “Fish and Game commissioners decide on policy in the Fish and Game.”

Little spoke out for pursuing all options for increased state management of federal public lands, including collaborative projects and other proposals. “I say there are no bad ideas as far as generating more jobs, more opportunity, creating more forest health out there on these federal lands,” he said.

Chmelik said he too supports those moves, but believes a transfer of the lands from the federal government to the state is the answer. The acres of federal forest land that burned in his county in the last fire season could have generated $92 million for local schools and roads if they’d been logged instead, he said. “So we’re talking real dollars here.”


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