POCATELLO — Amid her 19th year as a state lawmaker, Rep. Elaine Smith has announced she won’t be seeking reelection and finally plans to retire.
The Pocatello Democrat, who is in her 10th term in office and her fourth year of serving as House minority caucus chairwoman, has endorsed former Rep. James Ruchti to fill the District 29B seat she’ll be vacating.
Smith and Ruchti made their announcements at 11 a.m. Saturday at Station Square, 200 S. Main St.
Former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne appointed Smith mid-term to replace former Democratic lawmaker Roger Chase. She had to face an opponent every time she sought reelection, except in 2016. Smith insists the secret behind her campaigning success has been “being a moderate and listening to the people in Pocatello and trying to represent their viewpoints.”
Prior to joining the Legislature, Smith spent a career with Pocatello-Chubbuck School District 25, where she served as volunteer services and business partnerships coordinator. She said advocates for education, public lands and access to public lands were among her greatest supporters.
Smith believes Ruchti’s experience and legal background have prepared him well for the job.
Ruchti, who is a local attorney, joined the Legislature in 2006, replacing Democrat Elmer Martinez. He served until 2010, when he announced he wouldn’t seek reelection in order to spend more time with family and focus on his law practice.
Ruchti said both of his children have now graduated from University of Montana, and he and his wife, Wendy, believe the time is right for his return to politics.
“Our practice is doing really well, and we’ve worked hard over the last 10 years to build up a premier law practice in Eastern Idaho,” Ruchti said.
Candidates will file to run for state office in early March. Ruchti believes he made two major accomplishments while serving as a lawmaker. First, he introduced legislation that extended the statute of limitations for child abuse cases. Second, he got a bill passed to create an enhanced penalty added to the Idaho Consumer Protection Act for predatory practices against elderly and disabled people.
“I understand the process and I felt like I had a lot of success in a short amount of time because I focused on issues and problems regular Idahoans faced — the sort of people who don’t have lobbyists in Boise,” Ruchti said.
Ruchti is watching the current session closely. Among the chief issues of concern to him is a discussion about making the process of bringing ballot initiatives more challenging for residents, which he opposes. He also wants to make certain Medicaid expansion is handled in “the right way.”
Smith believes plans to make changes to the state’s current policy of offering a grocery tax credit will be a key issue this session. She’s leaning in favor of supporting a bill to increase the credit. She has reservations, however, about a competing plan to repeal the 6 percent tax on groceries in Idaho, concerned about the potential for education to lose important funding.
She’s been pleased by Gov. Brad Little’s commitment to funding education, though she’s concerned about a 1 percent hold-back in the current budget and a 2 percent cut in the next budget cycle that will affect higher education. She also believes the State Board of Education needs to make it a priority to appointment a member from the Pocatello area, where Idaho State University is located.
When Smith started her long tenure as a lawmaker, there were just nine Democrats in both houses of state government. Today, there are 21 Idaho Democrats in the state Legislature, which has led to better discussions, she said.
“But if you are a Democrat, you want to get a Republican cosponsor on a piece of legislation,” Smith added.
She’s concerned, however, that there’s now less cooperation in state government; she advocates for requiring training in cooperation for lawmakers.
“When I came in, there were many more moderate Republicans, and people did work together and compromise on issues,” Smith said. “I think people have gotten into the position that it’s my way or no way, and that is very sad for the country.”
She’s particularly proud of two pieces of legislation she got passed. One bill she sponsored established concussion protocols for Idaho public schools to follow in their sporting events. The other bill, which she backed along with Sen. Mark Nye, D-Pocatello, allowed first-responders to break into a vehicle to protect children left locked in hot vehicles without liability.
Smith vows to remain active in the community and looks forward to frequent visits to see grandchildren in Utah and Colorado.