Otter: Poll to explore highway tax support

The governor tells contractors not to expect new revenue out of the 2014 Legislature.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comDecember 8, 2013 

  • In Idaho, future unclear for Medicaid expansion


    © 2013 Idaho Statesman

    Gov. Butch Otter doesn’t comment on the agenda he’ll set for lawmakers in his Jan. 6 State of the State address. But his remarks Friday hinted that he won’t tackle the controversial idea of expanding Medicaid to an estimated 100,000 low-income Idahoans.

    Otter took a pass on the issue in the 2013 session, deciding it was too much to ask of his fellow Republicans to both enact a state-run health insurance exchange under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act and expand the Medicaid program, which receives heavy federal subsidies.

    “We have time to do this right,” Otter said of the state-federal Medicaid program in his 2013 State of the State.

    He argued that any expansion should come after the state repaired what he said was a system in need of fixes: He asked his Health and Welfare director to find ways to promote patient responsibility, among other reforms.

    On Friday, however, Otter predicted a smooth session of 75 or 80 days, absent dicey issues that might delay adjournment. In the past 20 years, 12 sessions have lasted longer than 80 days. The last session of fewer than 80 days was in 2010, at 78 days.

    “I don’t see any major issues that we’re gonna get bogged down on like we do sometimes,” Otter said. “And if we are, there appears to be a willingness by both sides of the aisle to get those early on — to serve ’em up in the mornin’ so it’s not well after dinner that we’re still fightin’. If there’s any angst at all on issues, it’ll probably be early on in the session.”

    A front-loaded schedule runs counter to the immediate interests of lawmakers, who are privately saying they want to defer tough votes until after the March 14 deadline for candidates to file for the May 20 primary elections. March 14 would mark the 68th day of the session.

    Some of the 45 Republicans who backed Otter on the insurance exchange say they will balk on a Medicaid vote until after they know the quality of their primary opponent. Otter already has drawn a challenge from Senate Majority Leader Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, who makes opposition to Otter’s “propping up” of Obamacare his top issue.

    The instinct for self-preservation trumps what many lawmakers — also off the record — acknowledge: The arithmetic makes a compelling case, because the U.S. government promises to cover 100 percent of Medicaid expansion costs in the first three years and 90 percent thereafter. A University of Idaho study says that would save state and local taxpayers $1.1 billion over the next decade.

    The state’s largest and most influential business lobby, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, was a key supporter of Otter’s health exchange and says 2014 is the time to expand Medicaid. IACI President Alex LaBeau wrote Otter last month, saying, “IACI supports Medicaid redesign in a manner that is fair to taxpayers, beneficial to employers, adds provider accountability, addresses the inherent inefficiencies in the county indigent program and the state’s catastrophic program, and minimizes the cost shift to business.”

    Medicaid now covers about 230,000 Idahoans and costs about $1.65 billion a year, with the federal government paying 70 percent of the cost. Nondisabled adults in Idaho are covered if they have children and make less than 20 percent of the poverty level — $4,584 a year for a family of four. Expansion would cover all adults up to 138 percent of poverty, or $31,000 a year for a family of four.

    Neighboring Washington has implemented expansion, prompting anecdotal reports that Idahoans in border towns such as Lewiston, Moscow and Coeur d’Alene are moving to Washington to enroll in Medicaid.


    Dan has covered efforts by Govs. Cecil Andrus, Phil Batt, Dirk Kempthorne and Butch Otter to raise transportation revenue. He’ll be back at the Statehouse Jan. 6, reporting on his 26th session.

Gov. Butch Otter says he must have a show of public support for increasing revenue for roads and bridges before he’ll support such a plan.

“I doubt very, very much if in (2014) there will be an action — an action to the point of a legislative conclusion — meaning passage of those bills,” Otter told the Idaho Associated General Contractors on Friday.

Otter said he’s determined not to repeat his experience with “Students Come First,” the school reforms enacted in 2011 but soundly rejected by voters in November 2012.

“If our process is anemic, if our process doesn’t reach out and correctly identify the problem, then all I can tell you is I went through a miserable election night as we were losing all three of those” propositions, Otter told the AGC’s winter meeting in Garden City.

Otter made it clear he won’t support a tax increase as he seeks his third term next year with two serious challengers, Republican Sen. Russ Fulcher of Meridian and Democratic Boise businessman A.J. Balukoff.

“I just want you to know that we’re going to take some time,” Otter said.

Otter asked the contractors to help fund a $45,000 poll by the James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research at the University of Idaho.

“I would hope that you folks would recognize that the information that we can get would be valuable to yourselves and your future direction and your future growth,” Otter said. “My first priority is going to be: What does the public say about it? Do they understand exactly what we’re trying to do?”


Among the questions Otter said he wants the poll to ask are: “Do you believe that we need more money for our highways? And do you believe that our bridges are in disrepair? What sort of revenue stream do you think we should be looking at?”

Wayne Hammon, executive director of AGC and Otter’s former budget director, said contractors will help pay for the poll, saying stakeholders met Wednesday to discuss the effort. The McClure Center has committed $10,000 for the poll of voters on transportation policy.

“All of us talk about it all the time, but we live in the bubble of the capital,” Hammon said. “Out on the road do people see this as a problem? And if so, how big of a problem?”

In June, the AGC reconvened its Idaho Transportation Coalition to jump-start a funding debate Otter initiated in 2008.

Otter’s effort to raise about $175 million annually failed in 2009 when the House rejected six fuel tax increases. The last fuel tax and registration increases came in 1996, after floods wrecked Idaho roads and bridges.

A task force convened by Otter reported in 2010 that state and local highway funding fell $262 million short of meeting annual operation, preservation and restoration needs. Annual capacity and safety enhancement needs were underfunded by $281 million a year. Idaho has about 5,000 miles of state highways and 34,000 miles of local roads.

Some proponents, including Association of Idaho Highway Districts Executive Director Stuart Davis, held out hope that the 2014 Legislature would increase funding. After Otter’s remarks Friday, Hammon acknowledged that won’t happen.

“We are looking at 2015,” Hammon said.

The 2014 Legislature begins Jan. 6 and Hammon said the coalition’s focus will be hearings in the transportation committees.

“We’ll consistently talk about it and educate lawmakers and that’ll filter back out to the public,” he said. “And at the end of the session, we’ll have this poll so we’ll kind of know what our work is next summer.”


Marty Peterson, executive director of the McClure Center, said pollsters will be in the field for most of January, making up to 4,000 calls to reach 1,200 respondents willing to take a 15-minute telephone survey.

The poll is aimed to have a 4 percent margin of error in each of the Idaho Transportation Department’s six districts. Statewide results are tentatively planned to be revealed at a joint meeting of the House and Senate Transportation committees on March 18, Peterson said.

Peterson is retiring this month. Priscilla Salant, director of U of I’s Office of Community Partnerships, will be interim director of the center.

Salant is working with the College of Agriculture’s Social Science Research Unit on the poll. Detailed results from the six ITD districts are expected in April, Peterson said.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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