Mountain Home GOP Rep. Pete Nielsen, an outspoken conservative who regularly speaks of socialism's grip on Idaho, faces a spirited primary with two capable challengers.
Because of a redrawn District 23, the most serious threat to the 10-year lawmaker appears to come from Matthew Bundy, a retired Air Force aviator who has taught at Mountain Home High School for eight years.
Bundy promised to broaden the conversation in the Legislature, quoting Gen. George Patton's famous line, "If everyone is thinking alike, then someone isn't thinking."
"We need to have a Legislature where we're allowed to voice an opinion," Bundy said. "The opinion might not be the same as everybody else, but it shouldn't cause political heartache. It should bring us together."
Elmore County, with a population of about 27,000, dominates the new district. Owyhee County has about 11,500 people and the western side of Twin Falls County has about 5,900. The third candidate, Steve Millington, of Buhl in Twin Falls County must overcome not being as well known as Nielsen or Bundy.
All three were at a forum Tuesday night sponsored by the Mountain Home Chamber of Commerce.
Nielsen’s pitch was reminiscent of his frequent speeches on the House floor: Cut taxes and regulations, stem the creep of socialism.
“I’m very concerned about the trend of socialism in this state and country and work hard to try to reverse that,” Nielsen told a crowd of about 100, adding that the recession that forced spending cuts was a godsend.
“One of the best things that happened to us was when you quit sending us so much money,” he said. “We had to make cuts.”
Bundy and Millington also spoke of thrift in government, but they knocked Nielsen for two ideas that he’s championed and gone nowhere.
Bundy criticized Neilsen’s support for repeal of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and returning the power to elect U.S. senators to state legislatures.
“We should not restrict your ability to participate in representative government,” said Bundy, who teaches government and recently returned from teaching on an exchange in Ukraine.
Millington knocked Nielsen’s authorship of House Joint Memorial 11 which called for a U.S. constitutional convention to amend the constitution to require any increase in the federal debt be approved by a majority of state legislatures.
Millington said he opposes a convention because he said it could not be limited to a single subject as Nielsen said and “nobody can tell me how we would define the people who would participate.”
“It would be an open season on everything in the Constitution,” Millington said.
Nielsen didn’t defend his position on the 17th Amendment, but said he’s dropped his plans for a convention, even though he said Millington’s concerns are unwarranted.
“I’m not scared of an open convention,” Nielsen said. “However, that’s not going to happen. You won’t see me goin’ down that road any more.”
The House defeated Nielsen’s memorial 50-20 in March.
Bundy spoke of his innovations in the classroom, including building a program providing concurrent credit at BSU for government students. Bundy impressed Millington so much that he said Bundy should stay put. “He belongs in the classroom, not the Legislature.”
But Bundy said he plans to remain in the classroom and would work hard to find a suitable substitute during the legislative session. “They’re going to learn from my being in the Legislature,” Bundy said.
All three Republicans said they supported Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna’s education reforms, but Bundy suggested a change to the mandate for online education.
“What I don’t want to see is the money for online education going to out-of-state institutions,” Bundy said. “We have online teachers, we have organizations here in Idaho. Let’s spend the money in Idaho. Let’s use Idaho taxpayer dollars for Idaho kids, for Idaho classes in Idaho programs.”
Millington said he would work to stabilize education funding, saying the shift of maintenance and operations from local property taxes to the state sales tax was a mistake. “They shortened one of the legs on that funding stool and that caused a severe dislocation in that funding process….We have to put a safety valve in there so that education doesn’t always come out on the wrong end.”
Nielsen said he wants to stem spending on the departments of Health & Welfare and Corrections to protect school spending.
In his closing statement, Nielsen cited his commitment to the job. “My full-time job is working for you as your legislator,” Nielsen said. “Mostly, I’m going to help you lower your taxes and (have) less regulation.”
The winner of the May 15 primary will face Democrat Pam Chiarella of Mountain Home. Chiarella also is a teacher, who said she entered the race because of her opposition to the Luna reforms. Chiarella said Nielsen, a member of the House Education Committee, should have worked against “Students Come First,” rather than favor the bills.
Chiarella is a former computer information specialist who teaches computer applications. She said Luna’s plan to give a laptop to every high school student is a poor idea; instead, she said technology spending should focus on putting computers in schools and expanding bandwidth.
“Laptops for freshmen in not the way we need to spend our technology money,” she said. “We should be building infrastructure.”
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