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District 26 State House candidates talk housing issues

BLAINE COUNTY, Idaho (KMVT/KSVT) — Election Day is upon us, and one of the District 26 State House races has a former Democratic mayor, facing a retired teacher who is Republican. In this race, how each candidate plans to solve the ongoing housing crisis in the Wood River Valley could decide that.

The Democratic candidate, Rep. Ned Burns, said experience matters in this race. He has a year under his belt as a state legislator, having been nominated to complete the remaining term of former Idaho State House Representative Muffy Davis. Davis is now Blaine County Commissioner. With District 26 now encompassing Jerome County, he believes he has the skills to bridge the gap between conservative and progressive voters.

“I think being mayor of Bellevue really prepared me for this. Bellevue is a more purple city than Hailey or Ketchum in particular,” Burns said. I think I did a really good job of making sure everyone in Bellvue knew what we were trying to do, and we had pretty good buy-in from across town.

However, Republican challenger Mike Pohanka believes his time as an instructor at the College of Southern Idaho prepared him for the challenges of a diverse electoral district.

“I’ve had students across the board with different beliefs, and one thing is I’m always there for people, always there for my students no matter who they were,” Pohanka said. “If they’re in Blaine County, Lincoln County, Jerome County, I’ll still represent the people.

The retired college instructor has lived in Idaho his entire life and in Jerome County for more than 30 years. Pohanka said his decision to run is motivated by a desire to serve the people of his community and that he sees himself as a public servant and not a politician.

Additionally, he said inflation was a common concern among voters.

“The price of gas. The price of groceries and the cost of housing, just trying to support their families,” Pohanka said.

In the Wood River Valley, there is a crisis in affordable housing for the workforce, with many local workers being squeezed out of the market with skyrocketing prices for homes and rentals. The situation is something that affects Burns personally.

“It’s super stressful. I have friends who have to couch surf or camp in someone’s backyard,” Burns said. “Housing insecurity is super, super stressful.”

Burns said he worked hard during the last legislative session to ensure the labor housing fund passed this year and advocates that the state continue to fund it.

“The state allocated $50 million this past session, and honestly Blaine County could use $50 million of those dollars. That’s how we get behind the eight ball,” Burns said.

Pohanka said if elected he would like to explore a public-private partnership to solve the housing problem. Like finding individuals who are willing to sell land or property below market value.

“Maybe the state can find a way to ensure that this individual gets a tax deduction on this donation,” Pohanka said.

Additionally, he said other solutions could be to find contractors who will provide in-kind services to reduce the cost of services and make homes more affordable.

Many Wood River Valley voters believe that short-term rentals are the “root cause” of Blaine County’s housing crisis. Many Wood River Valley groups would like something done at the state level to limit the number of short-term rentals that can operate in an area. It is a subject that the two men will have to deal with if they are elected. Pohanka said it was a solution worth investigating, but it was also tricky.

“Most people don’t like the government telling them what to do and would find an alternative to that (short-term rental),” Pohanka said.

If elected, Burns said other issues he would like to focus on are water infrastructure, property tax relief and education quality. He thinks this election cycle will win over some voters in traditionally conservative Jerome County.

“The people we spoke to in Jérôme, who went door to door and solicited people, are very happy to have the choice. It’s been a long time since there’s been a Democrat on the ticket in Jerome County, and a lot of people are really excited about it,” Burns said.

Pohanka said if elected he would also like to focus on water and infrastructure issues as well as education. He would also like to address transportation and public safety. He said right now he feels good about his chances in that race based on what he’s hearing from people who have already voted or are preparing to vote on Election Day.

“I feel positive about it. just the people I’ve talked to, whether it’s in northern Lincoln County or Jemoe County, just give me the push,” Pohanka said.

Burns said he didn’t want to put a percentage on his odds and “jinx himself,” but he said he felt “decent” about his chances of winning. Additionally, he said around 5 or 6 p.m. on Election Day that he was going to turn off his phone.

“I will go to the mountains with my wife and stay in a hut. We’re going to read books and watch movies, and we’re going to find out in the morning,” Burns said. “She (his wife) has sacrificed a lot this election season. I owe him a night of undivided attention.