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Russ Fulcher, Cristina McNeil talk Medicaid, immigration and climate in congressional debate

Cristina McNeil, left, and former state Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, shake hands after a debate at the studios of Idaho Public Television in Boise, on Sunday. (Otto Kitsinger / Associated Press)
By Rebecca Boone Associated Press

BOISE – Environmental regulations, health care and immigration marked a few of the sharp divides to surface in a debate Monday night between the two candidates vying to represent Idaho’s 1st Congressional District.

Republican Russ Fulcher and Democrat Cristina McNeil are running to replace Republican U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador who opted to run for governor, but lost in the primary.

During the Idaho Public Television debate, McNeil and Fulcher were pressed on immigration, particularly in light of a caravan of about 3,500 migrants moving slowly north through Mexico toward the U.S. border.

McNeil said the United States needs to take a humanitarian approach to asylum seekers, welcoming them and allowing them to go through the legal asylum application process without being separated from their families.

“We need to recognize these people, give them the humane treatment they deserve,” said McNeil, who is a longtime volunteer for several organizations and a real estate agent with a brokerage in Boise. “Protect them, don’t separate their families, and then let them go through the process.”

Fulcher said he doesn’t oppose the asylum application process but said he is suspicious about a caravan of immigrants currently heading toward the U.S. border because it’s happening so close to the midterm elections. He didn’t elaborate on his reasoning.

“We haven’t had a caravan this large that I’m aware of,” Fulcher said.

Fulcher, a former state senator and real estate broker from Meridian, did say the process for legal immigration should be made easier, in part by reducing costs and making immigration or citizenship classes more accessible.

Neither candidate spoke in favor of stricter gun control, but both said access to mental health care needed to be improved. Still, they differed on how to provide that care, with McNeil advocating for Medicaid expansion and Fulcher favoring steps such as increased health care savings accounts and health club memberships.

“The key thing is affordability and accessibility … and how you do that is through the private sector,” Fulcher said. “It does include opening up transparency so that people know what the costs are.”

McNeil said Fulcher and his colleagues haven’t come up with ways to cover roughly 62,000 Idaho residents who work but earn too much to qualify for Medicaid and not enough to afford health insurance. Expanding Medicaid coverage would help those families, she said.

“We are in a state of emergency in so many areas in Idaho … This is a basic human need,” McNeil said. “This is the main key for our families to be productive.”

Asked about climate change, Fulcher said he believes “in the cycle that’s happened since the beginning of time,” and said wildfires in Idaho and other states are a significant contributor of carbon emissions.

“Don’t be misled – if you take a look at this over the past thousand years, you’ll see a cycle up, a cycle down,” he said.

He said Idaho families have been disenfranchised by regulations that limited logging and mining, and that has led to forest overgrowth and catastrophic wildfires.

“God gave us a resource,” he said. “We have a wealth of prosperity and it’s under our feet, yet we have a very low income and that’s because we transitioned to a service-based economy.”

McNeil said voters need to know that President Donald Trump’s administration is preparing to reverse dozens of environmental rules and regulations that she said protect the food people eat and the air they breathe.

“Leave Jesus alone – he has nothing to do with this,” she chastised Fulcher. She said while in the state Legislature, Fulcher and his colleagues worked to give control over resources like property owners’ mineral rights to special interests.

The debate is a collaborative effort of the Idaho Press Club, Boise State University’s School of Public Service, University of Idaho’s McClure Center, Idaho State University’s Department of Political Science, League of Women Voters Education Fund, and Idaho Public Television.