Like numerous other Republican legislative primaries in eastern Idaho this May, the race for one of the seats representing Idaho Falls features one candidate from the party’s more conservative wing and another from the more moderate one.
Rep. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls, was elected to the District 33B seat in the state House in 2016 and is seeking a third term. Zollinger, a former Idaho Falls District 91 school trustee and lawyer who works for the local firm Smith, Driscoll and Associates, had a 94% rating on the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s Freedom Index in 2020 and has a 96% lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union based on his votes.
“I have kept every promise I’ve ever made in any campaign,” Zollinger said. “I’m proud of my conservative voting record. I’m endorsed by Idaho Chooses Life, endorsed by the (National Rifle Association), endorsed by the Family Policy Alliance. … What I’ve done in my four years of service is to keep those conservative promises I’ve made to the people.”
His primary challenger is Marco Erickson, a local mental health professional who works with at-risk youth. Erickson, who used to do youth mental health-related work for Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval but has never run for office before, said he decided to challenge Zollinger due to Zollinger’s legal work representing local medical debt collection firm Medical Recovery Services.
“We had a person representing us that was collecting medical debt and causing grief for people,” Erickson said.
Melaleuca CEO Frank VanderSloot started to push for legal limits on medical debt collection last year, after Smith, Driscoll and Associates sued Melaleuca when the company refused to go along with a garnishment order for one of its employees. East Idaho News, which VanderSloot provided the original funding for but no longer owns, did a series in 2019 telling the story of that employee — after costs and legal fees, Smith, Driscoll and Associates was seeking more than $5,000 on an original $294 debt — and reporting more generally on the work of the law firm and Medical Recovery Services. The Legislature passed a law this year to set some restrictions on medical debt collection such as capping legal fees. Zollinger was one of 20 House members to vote against the bill.
District 33 largely covers the city of Idaho Falls. It is bounded by East Lincoln Road and East Anderson Street to the north, North 25th East to the east, Sunnyside Road to the south and the western border zigzags with much of it following Bellin Road. Zollinger is the only District 33 lawmaker facing a primary challenger. Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, is so far unopposed both in the primary and the November election, while Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, is unopposed in the primary but faces Democrat Miranda Marquit in November.
The district is solidly Republican, although not as overwhelmingly so as the more rural districts surrounding it. In 2018, Democratic candidates for state-level office carried or were competitive in the precincts that cover downtown, South Boulevard and numbered streets, while Republicans comfortably won the rest of the district. Zollinger, Ehardt and Lent all beat their Democratic opponents with 57% to 60% of the vote.
As of March 31, the last day of the latest filing period, Erickson had gotten $9,226 in contributions this year and had $8,272.18 on hand, while Zollinger has raised just $100 this year and ended March with $2,261.56 on hand. As well as the above-mentioned endorsements, Zollinger has also gotten help from several outside groups that tend to back members of the Republican Party’s more conservative wing, including Facebook ads paid for by the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance and $500 in March from the Coeur d’Alene based-RINO Hunters of the Inland Northwest.
Erickson’s donors include former Ammon Mayor Dana Kirkham; former Idaho Falls City Councilman Ed Marohn; Idaho Falls City Council President Tom Hally; and Carrie Scheid, a Post Register columnist who recently filed a complaint alleging the Idaho Freedom Foundation broke Internal Revenue Service rules. Erickson’s campaign Facebook page touts numerous endorsements, including from U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, the Republican who represents eastern Idaho in Congress.
“Once the coronavirus fades, we need to refocus on growing our economy,” Simpson said. “I’m impressed that Marco knows the key role that the INL and agriculture play and he is willing to be an advocate for both.”
The primary is on May 19. This year’s primary is being conducted entirely by mail and results won’t be available until June 2.
EricksonErickson has a master’s degree in psychology and has worked in mental health services for years. Currently, he works with at-risk youth and serves on the boards of directors for Community Suicide Prevention and the Region 7 Juvenile Justice Council. If elected, he said he would likely be one of the least wealthy members of the Legislature.
“It’s always been (about) serving the people to make their lives better and utilizing my skill set to do that,” he said.
If elected, Erickson said he wants to serve on the House Health and Welfare and Education committees and thinks he could contribute to both given his background.
“I think the Legislature could use someone like me,” he said. “They don’t have those kind of experts in there right now.”
One of his focuses, he said, would be on making sure young people are being trained the skills Idaho employers need and can find jobs here after graduating school.
“I really work by bringing all the people together who are affected by change and figuring out solutions, and I think that’s important above me being ready to go and create a whole bunch of new legislation,” he said. “And we’ve got to prioritize tax relief over social issues that are less important to the people we serve.”
Erickson said solving major problems earlier in the session will be especially important in 2021, given that lawmakers will likely have to address the fallout of coronavirus and some serious budget issues stemming from that.
Erickson said he views himself as a conservative Republican and favors small government and handling problems at the local level when possible.
“I have conservative values,” he said. “Family is very important, central to my life and to many of our voters’ lives.”
ZollingerZollinger said his biggest success so far has been a bill he sponsored in 2019 to let pharmacists prescribe more types of medication than they could previously and which, he said, is “being used nationwide as a model to open up the markets and allow people access to more affordable health care.”
Another bill he is proud of is one he and Ehardt sponsored this year, which passed, setting a minimum marriage age of 16. The bill passed easily after another bill sponsored by Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, which would have not only set a minimum age but required a judge to sign off on 16- and 17-year-olds marrying, failed in the Idaho House in 2019; Zollinger and Ehardt were among the opponents of that bill, saying it infringed too much on parental rights.
Zollinger opposed Medicaid expansion, and after voters decided in 2018 to expand Medicaid coverage to everyone making up to 138% of the poverty level Zollinger was one of the main architects of a bill to add work requirements for Medicaid expansion beneficiaries.
“It has the potential to help taxpayers save a lot of money while also helping people to become self-sufficient,” he said.
Zollinger said his biggest disappointment so far has been that the Legislature hasn’t repealed Idaho’s 6% sales tax on groceries. He said he plans to sponsor a grocery tax repeal bill himself in 2021. Another disappointment of his is the Legislature’s inaction on property tax relief this year, and he plans to co-sponsor legislation on the topic next year as well. He also wants to keep working on legislation to make it easier for restaurants in resort cities such as Driggs to get liquor licenses, and on repealing Idaho’s mandatory minimum prison sentences for possession of large amounts of drugs, letting judges set lower sentences in cases where it may be warranted. Zollinger has co-sponsored two mandatory minimum repeal bills which have passed the House but never gotten a hearing in the Senate.
“We have bipartisan support to get that passed,” he said.