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Veteran former member of the Idaho House returns to fill Senate vacancy

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Sen. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, poses in her office Jan. 18. A former Idaho House member, VanOrden is stepping in this legislative session while Sen. Steve Bair is out to care for family. (Clark Corbin/Idaho Capital Sun)

Sen. Julie VanOrden has broad experience in education and agriculture

The newest member of the Idaho Senate is an experienced legislative committee chairwoman who is relying on her experience in the Idaho House as she jumps back into representing the same district that first elected her nearly 10 years ago.

Sen. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, is a former chairwoman of the House Education Committee who served three terms in the Idaho House of Representatives, until she was defeated in the 2018 Republican primary election.

Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, asked VanOrden in the fall to serve as a substitute in his place while he takes a leave of absence to care for his wife and oldest son as they battle illness.

Bair has known VanOrden’s husband, Garth, since high school and known Julie VanOrden for decades. Their families live about a mile from each other.

For six years, Bair and VanOrden represented District 31, which covers all of Bingham County, together — Bair in the Senate and VanOrden in the House.

“I can tell you she is unequivocally honest and filled with integrity and she is very, very hard- working,” Bair said in a telephone interview. “She reads the bills and then applies her common sense and then makes a decision, and she is not beholden to any outside parties.”

This isn’t the first time Bair has trusted VanOrden with his seat in the Senate.

During the 2021 session when Bair tested positive for COVID-19, he had VanOrden come to Bosie and substitute for him while he was sick.

This will be a longer appointment. VanOrden said she talked with Bair and is prepared to finish the legislative session and is seriously considering running for the seat in the upcoming 2022 Republican primary election, which is scheduled for May 17. She and Bair speak regularly by phone throughout the season, and Bair keeps VanOrden in the loop about constituents’ concerns that are brought to him.

“I kept track of her, and she’s always had a desire to serve,” Bair said. “I thought, ‘What better person could there be?’ She has experience and is able to step right in, and she loves Idaho.”

VanOrden isn’t the only new member of the Idaho Senate for 2022. On Nov. 24, Gov. Brad Little appointed Carrie Semmelroth to fill a vacancy created when former Sen. Ali Rabe, D-Boise, moved out of her legislative district.

VanOrden brings experience and personal relationships to office 

Before she was first elected to the Idaho House in 2012, VanOrden served on her local school board in Bingham County and was active with the Parent Teacher Association, or PTA.

VanOrden is a co-owner of her family’s farm and agribusiness, where they grow potatoes and wheat and post beautiful photos to Instagram under the handle @gvofarms. VanOrden is also a member of the Idaho Potato Commission and serves on the Idaho Charter School Commission, which authorizes charter schools, oversees operating charter schools and considers charter renewals. In addition to that, VanOrden is a board member of the Idaho Youth Ranch, and is working on a capital campaign to build a residential treatment center.

“Relationships are one of her great strengths,” said Rep. Wendy Horman, an Idaho Falls Republican who was elected to the Idaho House in 2012, the same year as VanOrden.

VanOrden and Horman sat next to each other and had offices across from each other in their earlier days and became close friends.

Horman said VanOrden helped her when they were both legislative rookies. Horman didn’t know anybody in government and political circles and felt nervous attending some of the social and industry events that legislators are invited to many evenings when they are in session in Boise. VanOrden, on the other hand, seemed to know everybody and (with former Rep. Kelley Packer’s help) they attended events with Horman and showed her the events can become a constructive time to get to know other legislators outside the stress of committee hearings and floor debates.

“One of Julie’s strengths is that she is great with people, she cares a lot about people and she has broad experience in different sectors,” Horman said.

Substitute Idaho senator looks to get back to work 

Being back doesn’t feel that strange to VanOrden, though she said there are a few differences between the House and Senate she’s observed serving and watching last year and returning this year. One involved how the two chambers handle debate and testimony in committee hearings.

”It was a little different, I felt like the testimony in the Senate committees was considered more in the decisions the the senators were making,” VanOrden said.

Another difference is in how the two chambers vote. House members vote silently and electronically from their desks on the floor and their votes are displayed on large monitors near the public seating gallery. Senators, on the other hand, are called on one-by-one and vote aloud — no electronics involved.

“The Senate is a little bit more formal, but there are so many similarities,” she said.

This year, there are a handful of policy issues VanOrden is excited to get involved with this session. Serving on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will allow VanOrden to work on the education budgets and Little’s call to invest a record amount of money in recent years in public schools. VanOrden said she is particularly interested in Little’s $104 million request to expand the career ladder salary allocation system to raise pay for teachers by 10% and Little’s proposal to increase spending on his kindergarten through third grade literacy program by $47 million to provide money for schools to pursue optional, full-day kindergarten.

“I think those are pretty vital to what’s going on in education right now, to be able to pay teachers now and getting our K-third grade students up to speed on their reading skills,” VanOrden said. “I’m pretty passionate about early learning, and I feel like starting with the optional full-day kindergarten is a really good start.”

VanOrden worked on the career ladder and voted for it in House Bill 296 in 2015, and then worked to implement and build out the career ladder when she was named chairwoman of the House Educaiton Committee before the 2017 legislative session, Idaho Education News reported.

Expanding the career ladder, raising teacher pay and increasing funding for early literacy are three of the major issues early in the 2022 session, and serving on JFAC will allow VanOrden to get reinvolved with each after a few years away from the Statehouse.

“It almost feels like there were things I kind of left undone, meaning the literacy pierce for K-3 students and also making sure the career ladder built out like we had planned on,” VanOrden told the Sun. “It was a lot of work.”