COEUR D’ALENE – With 10 months to go until the Idaho gubernatorial election, the race’s three Republican candidates answered a series of business-centric questions Friday during a forum held at the state GOP’s summer meeting.
Convened by the local business community, the intent of the forum was to clarify where each candidate stood on issues important to Idaho industries. Or, as Ground Force Manufacturing President Ron Nilson put it, “to figure out who these people are and what they stand for.”
“We’re not loose cannons. … We are all conservatives, registered Republicans,” Nilson said. “These are the questions we all should be asking.”
While not structured as a debate, the candidates – who all identify as conservatives – made an effort to create daylight between themselves and their opponents.
U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador took several swipes at opponent and businessman Tommy Ahlquist, who has positioned himself as an outsider candidate in the vein of President Donald Trump, by questioning Ahlquist’s conservative credentials and whether a businessman with no government experience could be effective as Idaho’s chief executive.
And both Labrador and Ahlquist appeared to set themselves to the right of Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who has worked in Gov. Butch Otter’s administration and, perhaps as a consequence, appeared more favorable of Idaho’s progress under the governor.
“I’d like to welcome Tommy to the Republican Party,” Labrador said, after claiming Ahlquist now professes more conservative views on tax incentives for recruiting business to Idaho than he did previously.
No questions from the audience were taken during the forum.
Below is a round-up of the candidates’ positions on the four biggest topics of the night.
President Donald Trump
Both Ahlquist and Labrador used several moments during the forum to showcase their connections to Trump, with Ahlquist comparing his own bid to Trump’s outsider candidacy and Labrador stressing his personal relationship with the president.
All of the candidates said they believed the president has been doing an “amazing” job so far, despite the difficulties his administration has faced. Labrador highlighted Trump’s challenges as the difficulties of putting a businessman with no legislative experience into office.
While Labrador said he did not find either of the 2016 presidential candidates to his liking – noting specifically that he did not like the things Trump said during the campaign – he took time to campaign for Trump because he wanted conservative appointees and a conservative justice to fill the empty seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It’s four years for a president, but a 40-year generational shift for the country,” he said, adding that Trump may get to fill another Supreme Court seat before the end of his term.
Little said he believes Trump is creating “a new federalism” that will reverse the flow of authority to the federal government and return it to the states and then, ultimately, the people.
The Affordable Care Act is a disaster for Idaho, all of the candidates agreed. Asked whether the recent dysfunction in Washington, D.C., has proved that the federal government is “ill-equipped” to handle health care, all the candidates strongly agreed.
Little said that prior to the advent of Obamacare, Idaho’s health care system had “work to do,” but it also had low costs and what he described as a functional high-risk pool. Free-market solutions, like health savings accounts that are meant to increase consumers’ personal responsibility in using health care services, are important in providing consumers with choices in health care, he said.
The fight in Congress in recent months has been “disappointing,” and has shown that many elected officials are unwilling to make the tough decisions to uphold their promises, Labrador said. Every provision in Obamacare has constituencies, and those constituencies will “make your life a living hell … and try to tear you apart,” because cutting costs is not popular or easy, he said.
“The bottom line is that we need to repeal Obamacare,” Labrador said.
Ahlquist, a former emergency room physician, described the “fraud, waste and abuse” he saw of Medicaid during his years in practice. He emphasized reforming Medicaid, instituting co-pays, and forcing insurance companies to sit down and negotiate on costs.
The issue of the opioid epidemic that has swept the nation also arose Friday night. The candidates agreed that opioids and other drugs pose a serious risk to Idaho, but that they believed the state already has several good policies in place.
Little said drug courts and crisis centers, like the one in Coeur d’Alene, have saved many lives, and that they are vital to addressing issues of drug abuse and mental health.
The country as a whole needs to reconsider the War on Drugs, Labrador said. While he said he is against legalizing marijuana or even its use for medical purposes, Labrador said he was open to the idea of increasing the use of other “holistic” medicines.
Instead of imprisoning drug users, we need to treat them, he said.
As a medical doctor, Ahlquist said he has witnessed the opioid crisis explode over the course of several decades, and that he recently had a close family member go through a rehab program. He and Labrador both agreed that the state needs to invest in combating the crisis immediately.
All of the candidates, when asked, agreed that faith-based rehabilitation programs could be effective and cheap tools to help addicts.
“I’ve always said that our biggest problem in this country is the deterioration of our culture,” Labrador said. “It’s a cultural problem, when we put man above God. … We need to bring back God, and faith, to the public.”
All three candidates said they were strongly in favor of school choice. Both Little and Labrador gave the Idaho public school system about a B-minus grade as a whole, with Ahlquist rating public school performance as a C or D.
Labrador emphasized that while many Idaho teachers do good work, student performance could be better. However, he added that better performance does not require more money to be dumped into the school system, but rather that local school boards should get more control over their districts.
“I would end Common Core,” Labrador said. “We need Idaho standards, not national standards.”
Little said many schools in Idaho deserve an A grade, but that the problem often times is “the condition of the kids when they show up,” which he said is an issue of values. Overall, Little said he thought education is on an upward trend in the state and that good progress takes time before results can be seen.
Ahlquist said goals for student achievement need to be defined more clearly, and that Idaho’s high school dropout rate is due to the lack of “a line of sight” between Idaho kids and Idaho jobs.
Candidates fielded questions on income and property taxes, as well as the use of tax incentives in recruiting businesses to Idaho. Ahlquist said taxes are far too high, and that one of the reasons he decided to enter the race for governor is because he wasn’t hearing any good answers from officials on how to fix them. He said taxes need to be “sliced and diced,” and that Idaho’s taxes make it uncompetitive.
Labrador said he has been advocating for lower taxes since he was a freshman state legislator, and he said he is running on a “5/5/5” plan that would make income, corporate and sales taxes all 5 percent. Idahoans need lower rates that treat them all the same, and the state should not be in the business of picking winners and losers, he said.
Little said Idaho taxes may appear higher than neighboring states, but this isn’t true for Idaho’s effective tax rate. However, Little did say that taxes do need to decrease and he believes they will go down soon – but he was not in favor of a total repeal of property taxes.
All of the candidates said local businesses should be protected when trying to recruit new businesses to Idaho. While Labrador and Ahlquist said the state needs to take care of local businesses and not pick winners and losers, Little said tax incentives could be effective as long as they are only used when it is beneficial to the community as a whole.
Neither Ahlquist nor Labrador said they view a tax cut as a cost to government, but Little said that it is.
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