COEUR d'ALENE — Idaho House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding said he has been coming to Coeur d’Alene for town hall meetings since 2012.
But, the scene Saturday morning at the Coeur d’Alene Public Library made Erpelding, D-Boise, pause to soak it all in.
“This is five times bigger than any town hall I’ve attended (in Coeur d’Alene),” Erpelding said. “We’ve got a good problem, and that good problem is that a lot of people are here.”
The event, hosted by the Kootenai County Democratic Party, drew large interest from community members and had to be moved from its original venue to the library to accommodate the more than 200 who attended. Erpelding was joined by Rep. Paulette Jordan, D-Plummer, with both elected officials fielding a variety of questions from the audience.
“We’re all here today because we care about our communities and want to fight back,” Jordan said.
Coeur d’Alene School District Trustee Tom Hearn asked both elected representatives to address concerns that recently-appointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos could help inspire a state-level push for a voucher program. Vouchers are a certificate of government funding for students that allow for the funds to follow the student to the school, whether private or public, of their choosing.
Although he said he has heard whispers that legislation could be put forward about the issue this session in Boise, Erpelding added that he was opposed to the concept of the voucher system.
“I definitely support the charter school and public school programs we have right now in Idaho,” he added.
Erpelding said that, while voucher programs could work in urban areas like Boise and Coeur d’Alene, implementing vouchers statewide would further harm the already struggling school systems in Idaho’s rural areas.
This session, Jordan said she has introduced a bill that, if passed, would give teachers in rural school districts college student loan relief. According to Jordan, the bill would help keep teachers from leaving rural areas after gaining enough experience to find work in higher-paying areas of Idaho and bordering states.
“This bill ensures they have a way to get by, even with the low salary they see in rural districts,” Jordan said, adding that she is aware the bill was criticized by local legislators at a town hall last month.
“If you don’t like our solution, come up with a better one. But I have yet to hear anything from the opposition in this (legislative) district.”
Many of the questions at the event focused on the bigger picture of how Idaho Democrats could capitalize on the political energy they are gaining as a result of opposition to President Donald Trump. One question, from North Idaho Indivisible founder Teuvo Orjala, paid particular attention to engaging younger generations in political discourse.
Jordan noted that the majority of her 100 campaign volunteers were college students and said that that fact was encouraging.
“People think our young folks aren’t engaged, but that’s simply not true,” she said.
“Our focus has to be on the Generation X-ers and Millennials being the future of our party,” Erpelding added. “That transition has to start now.”