Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Sen. Michelle Stennett Looks Toward Pivotal Year
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Sen. Michelle Stennett serves on the State Affairs, Resources & Environment and Local Government and Taxations committees, as well as many interim committees.
   
Wednesday, October 7, 2020
 

STORY AND PHOTO BY KAREN BOSSICK

Sen. Michelle Stennett has a reputation for keeping a calm demeanor amidst heated debates. But even she couldn’t help but feel a little unnerved when hundreds of maskless people shattered a glass door as they forced their way into the Capitol Building in August.

Some packed assault rifles as they barged into the special session in which legislators were debating election and other pandemic-related bills.

“We had not seen vocal groups of this type before,” said Stennett, the Senate Minority Leader. “Not only did they destroy our attempts to achieve distancing but there were even more people than the fire code allowed in some of the rooms. The upheaval extended the session longer at taxpayer expense. And it made an unsafe environment for legislators, law enforcement and public.

“At one point I looked around and I thought: I may be the only one in here not packing a gun. I thought, ‘I’m feeling a little underdressed here.’ ”

Stennett has campaigned for the District 26 senate seat multiple times since 2010. And she campaigned for her husband--the late Sen. Clint Stennett—before. But she’s had to learn a new way of reaching voters this year as she tries to get information out in a way that’s thoughtful about people’s comfort zones given the COVID pandemic.

She’s also had to deal with a tenor among Idaho voters that feels markedly different from previous years.

“I understand there was a lot of unhappiness about the governor’s emergency proclamation at the beginning of the pandemic. But what people don’t understand is that it was totally legal and necessary to get federal resources to deal with the pandemic,” she said.

“The statewide mandatory shelter-in-place was only at the very beginning. Then it switched to local counties. With some people, you can see the lightbulb come on when you explain what they didn’t understand before. When people do get in my face, I tell them, ‘I can’t own your anger. That’s yours. All I can do is listen and be respectful and be kind.’ ”

Despite the vitrol she has occasionally encountered, Stennett never considered not running. This is a pivotal year, she said, not only because of the pandemic but because of the census taking place and the redistricting that will follow.

“It’s a pivotal year in which we’re being asked to provide public health and safety and infrastructure for crumbling roads and bridges,” she said.

Stennett notes that Idaho is among the top states that U-Hauls are headed to, along with Montana and South Dakota.

“We’re a stage 4 state so a lot of people are coming from stage 1 where things are more restrictive because of the pandemic. We have a lot more distance and space to recreate where some can’t hardly  go out their front door,” she said.

But, she warns, those new people buying property will drive up housing prices. And legislators will have to find some way to provide property tax relief—perhaps, through impact fees on new construction.

“We had 23 bills last year for property tax relief, but nothing happened,” she said. “I don’t know how local people can continue living here with more people coming in and buying up the property. They’re going to need some relief.”

It will also be more incumbent than ever on legislators to protect Idaho’s clean air and water, finding ways to implement water conservation and aquifer recharge, with all those people moving here, she said.

Stennett has watched closely the efforts of Californians and others to try to block access to public land near Bogus Basin, Cascade Lake and elsewhere in the state.

“If it’s on state lands, the state can say, ‘No, you can’t block it.’ The Forest Service and BLM have tried to be polite. But it is illegal to block that land and people are getting away with things that are not legal.”

Stennett thinks public lands could be managed better to mitigate the risk of wildfire. She would like to see some demonstration projects bringing together the timber industry, conservationists “who know what good mosaic looks like,” watershed experts and others to show how clearing the understory could cut fire risk and benefit small communities.

“I hiked near Grandjean where they had a fire, and the understory is creating such hot fires that it nukes the soil so it takes forever for things to grow back,” she said. “We have to fund people on the ground to manage the forests instead of putting all our money into fighting fires. We can do it--we just have to have the political will to do it.”

Stennett paused to pick up a bird that had flown into one of the windows of her home tucked away in a wooded area of Ketchum. The bird is lifeless. But, she says, has resuscitated birds before. And she’s done the same for fish, running water through their gills.

“I’ve always had a strong streak about protecting the underdog, those who lack a voice of their own, dating back to when I was a child,” she said. “If you’ve been blessed, if you’re fortunate enough to be self-sufficient, why wouldn’t you want to help others be in a good place to the best of your ability. If you want to do well for the community, you have to look at the whole picture and make sure everyone’s at the table.”

In that vein, Idaho needs to provide better medical care for rural areas in a state that has fewer medical workers per capita than just about any other state, she said. That said, she predicted another fight this year to fund Medicaid Expansion, which last year provided health care to those who would have gone without.

“I think COVID displayed the warts of our health care system,” she said.

Stennett is also adamant about creating more quality jobs and better educational opportunities. And that includes career technology training, which she says lapsed in recent years. Stennett has championed a grant from the Idaho Workforce Development Council, established in October 2017 to address today’s industries’ needs.

 “There’s a huge demand for electricians, plumbers and other technical jobs,” she said. “That’s why I’m happy to see the first graduate from Carey through this initiative.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Meet Sen. Michelle Stennett’s challenger, Eric Parker, in Saturday's Eye on Sun Valley.

 

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