By BRIAN WALKER
COEUR d'ALENE — When Antje Cripe searched to find a meeting spot for Monday's League of Women Voters of Kootenai County gathering, she was shocked at the response of one business.
The treasurer of the nonpartisan political organization was told if the meeting was going to become politically contentious, the group may not be able to meet there.
"I was asked to be more specific (on what the meeting topics were), but we needed something bigger than what they have anyway," Cripe said during the meeting at McEuen Park. "I was stunned that it has come to this state of affairs."
One of the league's missions is "making democracy work," so Richard Kohles, a Democrat who has run for the state Legislature, encouraged the estimated 25 other attendees to support the group.
"Getting people to vote is the first thing that has to happen," Kohles said. "The cards are stacked against us about getting anything done if we don't have the (League) and dialogue. We had none of that in the last election."
Political frustrations also came to the forefront during the meeting when a man and woman interrupted speaker Luke Mayville, who advocated for raising the state's minimum wage of $7.25 per hour on behalf of the grassroots Reclaim Idaho group seeking candidate balance in the Legislature.
The two said there has been talk but no action about making changes to improve Idaho economic conditions before they walked away from the meeting in disgust.
But Mayville said if people stay focused on "bread and butter concerns of ordinary citizens" such as quality health care and education, support will rise so they won't feel like an "endangered species."
Mayville also spoke against the preemption law Idaho passed last year that prevents local governments from setting the minimum wage.
"The Legislature decided it doesn't care about local control after all, doubled down on centralized power and blocked communities from raising the minimum wage," Mayville said, adding that around 40 local jurisdictions nationwide have raised their minimum wage.
But Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d'Alene, who sponsored the bill and was contacted after the meeting, said this was one of those cases in which local control is not better.
"Local control is good in some stances, but instances when there are strong economic impacts, to where laws negatively impact business, it's not always the best approach," Malek said. "(The law) is not a knock on local control. We want businesses to have a consistent playing field no matter which community they're in."
Malek said the law clarifies what he believes was already on the books.
"We just wanted to make it more clear so there's no litigation about it," he said.
Lisa Schaff, the League's vice president, said the organization has not taken a position on minimum wage.
Poverty was also at the forefront of the meeting as Keri Stark, United Way of Kootenai County's director of community impact, presented the Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) report.
ALICE households bring in more than the federal poverty level of $11,670 for a single adult and $23,850 for a family of four, but still struggle to meet basic needs.
According to the report, 12 percent of the households in Kootenai County in 2014 were considered poverty and another 25 percent were in the ALICE category. The 37 percent walking a financial tightrope equates to about 20,000 households.
Statewide, 14 percent of households were considered poverty and 25 percent ALICE that year.
"We can point to low wages as being the cause (of poverty and ALICE), but it's certainly not the only cause," Stark said. "It's impossible to point to one single thing."
Stark said early education and access to affordable housing, living-wage jobs, transportation and health care are needed to combat poverty.
Coeur d'Alene's Jan Studer, a retired teacher who attended the meeting, said early education needs to be a focus in Idaho.
"It's an investment that pays back," she said. "The cost of childcare is prohibitive for so many young families."
Attendee Chris Matthews, of Post Falls, said his family has felt the effects. He said both he and his wife have full-time jobs and his wife also operates a personal side business and they still struggle. To compound the situation, the family's childcare center was shut down by violations.
"It's scary for us as young families," he said. "I hope we can find solutions in the future to support our children. What's more important than the next generation?"