Analysis: Six takeaways from Monday’s gubernatorial debate

There were a few chippy exchanges, no big breakthroughs, and probably no fatal missteps.

Before going on statewide television, U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, Lt. Gov. Brad Little and developer and physician Tommy Ahlquist pull names from a hat to determine speaking order for Monday night’s debate. Labrador won this phase of the debate, getting the chance to speak first.

But Monday night’s Republican gubernatorial debate had plenty of substance. And just in time, because in 21 days, voters will decide a bitter primary that has been defined by costly and negative ad drops.

Here are six takeaways from Monday night:

Doubling down on tax cuts. The 2018 Legislature cut taxes by $125 million, but the three candidates aren’t backing off from their own plans to further cut income tax rates. (All three candidates also want to repeal the sales tax on groceries, a topic that didn’t come up Monday night).

In the interest of full disclosure, I was on the reporter panel for Monday night’s debate, and I took the lead on tax and education questions. Our hope was to explore the tension between the promise of additional tax cuts, and the state’s commitments to education funding. With that disclosure and backdrop, here’s what we heard.

  • Boise developer and physician Tommy Ahlquist: “Our income tax is too high. It hurts us when we recruit companies.” But Ahlquist also said he wants to root out inefficient spending. “I cannot wait to get my nose underneath the circus tent.”
  • U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador defended his plan to cut corporate and personal income tax rates to 5 percent (the 2018 Legislature cut the top rates from 7.4 percent to 6.925 percent), and cut the sales tax from 6 percent to 5 percent. All told, that comes to about $1 billion, but Labrador bristled at the suggestion that he would cut the size of government. Instead, he said, he would work with legislators to get rid of some of the $3 billion in loopholes in tax code. “We can find at least $1 billion in these loopholes to bring down the tax rates.”
  • Gov. Brad Little said he wanted to continue to ratchet down income tax rates — as the economy grows, and not at the expense of education. The state still has unmet commitments on K-12; the nonpartisan Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy said it will cost at least $120 million to finish rolling out the five-year plan from Gov. Butch Otter’s K-12 task force. But Little said those commitments are not in jeopardy, since state revenues are $140 million ahead of pace.

A couple of key statistics, from Boise State University’s latest Idaho Public Policy Survey: 78 percent of respondents said they’d like the size of the state budget to stay the same or increase, and 68 percent of respondents said the state’s tax code works well as is, or needs only minor tweaks.

Life after high school. All three candidates sounded more or less the same themes. Ahlquist talked about aligning Idaho kids to Idaho jobs. Labrador talked about making sure more students leave high school with associate’s degrees or professional certificates. Little said certificates could be the linchpin to meeting Idaho’s “60 percent goal.”

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So, about that goal again. Idaho wants 60 percent of young adults to obtain a college degree or professional certificate. Idaho is stuck at 42 percent. That’s more of a political issue for Little, a prominent player in the 60 percent push. But on Monday, Little insisted the state’s long-range education investments are starting to nudge the needle.

Teacher pay. Little conceded that the state will need to pump more money into salaries, in order to keep veteran teachers on the job. But he also touted his plan to move the minimum teacher salary from $35,800 to $40,000, saying Idaho needs to convince talented college students to consider the teaching profession. “We have to send that message far and wide that we value our educators.”

Early education. Ahlquist and Labrador might not see eye to eye on everything (more on that later). But their comments against state-funded pre-K were all but interchangeable.

“I don’t think state government right now is investing money wisely in K-12 education, let alone having the state get involved in (early education),” said Ahlquist, who supported a state-funded pre-K pilot bill in 2014.

“I don’t see how anybody can advocate for pre-K when we’re not even spending the money from K through 12 wisely and adequately,” Labrador said.

Little spoke against state-funded pre-K in January, but left the door ajar Monday. He spoke again of his plan for early education grants — which could cover all-day kindergarten, reading coaches or optional pre-K.

Common Core. There has been no concerted push at the Statehouse to repeal Idaho’s Common Core standards, approved by the 2011 Legislature and endorsed in 2013 by Otter’s K-12 task force. But on Monday, Labrador gave a different account from the field. He said he has heard from parents, teachers and administrators who are fed up, and he vowed to replace Common Core. “We need to stop this centralized system that we have, where the people in Boise are telling the people in the local communities how they need to educate their kids.”

And about the mood … I think we all expected tense moments, given recent history, and Monday’s debate delivered. When Ahlquist and Labrador met backstage before the debate, their handshake was noticeably strained. On stage, each accused the other of lying, Labrador called Ahlquist a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” capable of appearing polite on camera. Alhquist said Labrador was once a nice guy — before he was elected to Congress.

Stationed between Ahlquist and Labrador, Little generally stayed out of the fray.

The on-stage tension was inevitable. Ahlquist tried to make some light of it, pointing out that all of the ads will go away in three weeks.

For some viewers, that was probably the best news of the night.

Watch on demand: Click here to watch Monday night’s debate.

More reading: More about Monday night’s debate from Kimberlee Kruesi of the Associated Press. Click here for profiles and in-depth coverage from our elections page. Click here to see where the candidates stand on school safety issues. Click here for coverage from Sunday night’s Democratic gubernatorial debate.

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