The Legislature’s K-12 budgeter-in-chief faces a high-profile primary

This is the first in a series of stories spotlighting some of Idaho’s most important legislative primaries. You can read the second here. Check back for more stories before the May 21 election.

The typical formula for an Idaho Republican primary goes like this: a hardline incumbent faces a mainstream opponent, or a mainstream incumbent faces a challenge from the right.

An Idaho Falls-area legislative primary breaks that mold. And it’s one of the most interesting races on the May 21 GOP ballot — because of its high-profile field of candidates, and the implications for education.

The incumbent, Rep. Wendy Horman, has played a central role in writing education budget bills for a decade, and co-chairs the Legislature’s influential Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Challenging Horman from the right is Bryan Smith — a Republican national committeeman with ties to Idaho Freedom Foundation and the name identification that comes from a pair of congressional campaigns. Sean Coletti, who holds a nonpartisan post as Ammon mayor, decries partisanship in Statehouse politics — and positions himself as a staunch opponent of moving public money into private schools.

The GOP nominee in District 32’s House Seat B will face Idaho Falls Democrat Patricia Dustin Stanger in the November general election.

Horman runs on school choice, budget transparency

First elected to the Legislature in 2012 after more than a decade on the Bonneville School Board, Horman quickly established herself as one of the Legislature’s go-to sources on education funding. She has had a hand in writing and sponsoring budget bills bankrolling a host of education initiatives, such as raises for teachers and classified employees, improved benefits for school employees, and state funding to replace or repair school buildings.

“To folks who say I’m not supportive of public education, the record just doesn’t bear that out,” Horman said in an interview.

But Horman has fallen out of favor with some public education stakeholders, because she has also emerged as a leading advocate for using taxpayer funds to support private education. She has sponsored several bills falling under the broad heading of “school choice,” including a bill this year to carve out $50 million for private school tax credits and grants.

Horman still bristles at the criticism of this bill, which died in a House committee. She said the bill capped spending and would not have created a runaway program, and said the state already allows private school students to use state-funded scholarships and grants.

“School choice is not a fringe issue,” she said. “It’s at the dead center of the electorate. It crosses ideological lines.”

As JFAC co-chair, Horman reworked many of the committee’s longstanding processes this session. For example, JFAC broke up budgets into large “maintenance” bills that covered ongoing expenses, and smaller “enhancement” bills for new line items. Critics said the changes slowed the session and made it easier for hardline legislators to vote against “enhancements.” Horman said the changes made budgeting more transparent, and she says the process resonates with voters.

“I do think that excessive government spending, and the federal debt is a deep concern of voters right now,” she said. “And what we’re trying to do is make sure Idaho never finds itself in the same position as the federal government right now.”

Smith, a prominent politico, runs as outsider

On his campaign website, Smith uses his bio to take a swing at his two elected opponents.

“Bryan isn’t a career politician. He is a hard-nosed political outsider who will fight for our conservative values in Boise.”

But that does not make the Idaho Falls attorney a neophyte.

Smith has twice run for Congress, losing to Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson in 2014 and 2022. Smith serves as vice chairman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a libertarian-leaning think tank, and is a frequent donor to foundation-aligned candidates. In 2023, he was named to a vacancy on the GOP national committee.

Smith did not respond to repeated interview requests. In response to an Idaho EdNews candidate survey, he differentiated himself from his two GOP primary rivals on Idaho Launch — echoing concerns raised by many Freedom Foundation legislative allies. He said the $8,000 Launch grants shift the cost of worker training from the employer to the taxpayer, while students can earn the money they need for training through a summer job. “(Launch) is certainly ‘nice’ for the student, (but) it is not ‘necessary’ for the student to achieve his education goals.”

In EdNews’ questionnaire, and on his website, Smith said the state should use tax dollars to support all students, in public or private schools or in a home school.

Smith’s campaign website says little about state issues, although he advocates for repealing the sales tax on groceries. Smith, like Horman, uses his campaign page to decry illegal immigration.

“Although Idaho can’t force the federal government into building the wall, Idaho can ensure that it’s not a magnet for people entering our country illegally,” Smith wrote. “That’s why I oppose sanctuary cities, free healthcare, free education, and driver’s licenses to anyone entering our country illegally.”

Coletti makes public school spending a campaign centerpiece

Coletti has served nearly seven years as mayor of Ammon, a growing bedroom community on the eastern fringe of Idaho Falls. But when Horman began pushing for tax credits for private school, Coletti began looking at a legislative race.

An attorney at the Idaho National Laboratory, Coletti rattles off a list of concerns with using public money to subsidize private schools. First, he questions if the idea is even constitutional. Second, he says the idea isn’t a “Bonneville County solution,” since private school options are scarce in the community. Third, the plan peels away money from public schools, undermining their support.

“It’s a statement of giving up on public schools to a certain extent,” Coletti said in an interview last week.

The move could undermine several of the positive steps the Legislature has taken to strengthen public education, Coletti said. He credits lawmakers for investing in teacher pay raises and taking steps to address the school facilities backlog.

Coletti also supports Idaho Launch, and said the state needs to improve student access to two- and four-year colleges and trade programs. ”This diversity in education is crucial for higher pay and more opportunities for Idaho’s youth,” he said on his campaign website.

Two of Coletti’s other priorities stem from his local government background.

He said the state must continue to work to reduce property taxes, which plug budgets for school districts, cities and counties.

He also said the Legislature needs to leave local decisions to local governments.

“(Let’s make) sure that they have the tools that they need to make decisions and to improve their situations, instead of the Legislature constantly taking on every battle that they think they need to get involved in.”

A race overview

Smith’s campaign has brought in $66,072 in just over a month — but loans from Smith himself account for more than $59,000 of the money. One of his donors is SMC Properties of Eagle. The company’s CEO, Stefan Gleason, is a gold and silver dealer and a prolific conservative campaign donor.

Smith’s campaign treasurer is Bryan Zollinger, a legal partner and former state representative.

Horman has raised $39,876. She has received maximum $1,000 contributions from prominent GOP donor Frank VanderSloot, CEO of Melaleuca, an Idaho Falls personal products company; the Idaho Charter School Network; and K12 Management Inc., a Virginia-based online education vendor.

Horman also has received endorsements from several sitting legislators. Rep. Kevin Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, credits Horman with helping to rework the JFAC process, and said this progress would be lost if Horman is not re-elected.

Coletti boasts endorsements from several past and present Ammon city officials. He has raised $6,312, including a $250 donation from Rep. Todd Achilles, D-Boise. Coletti said he and Achilles struck up a friendship as Ammon pursued a project to install fiber optics to residences and businesses.

More reading: Check out the candidates’ responses — and more from candidates across Idaho — at our online voter guide.   

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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