Dan Popkey: Gov. Butch Otter is a man with a plan

His lively appearance Friday makes good on a promise to fight hard for a third term.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comJanuary 4, 2014 

Gov. Butch Otter commandeers an interview that Channel 6’s Mike Sharp, right, was doing with House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, on Friday. Otter jokingly asked Bedke’s prediction of how many days the legislative session would last. Bedke responded, “Seventy-five.” Given recent history, that would be shorter than usual.

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com

  • LEGISLATURE CONVENES MONDAY

    At look at our upcoming coverage:

    Sunday: Will the GOP primary overshadow the session? What happens to Idaho’s uninsured if lawmakers don’t expand Medicaid?

    Monday: Idaho businesses’ 2014 wish list? Incentives and tax breaks.

    Tuesday: Gov. Otter outlines his budget and priorities in his Monday State of the State Address.

    At IdahoStatesman.com: See what Otter and legislative leaders told reporters at a Legislature preview Friday and read about the governor’s speech and budget on Monday afternoon. And all during the session, read Dan Popkey’s daily politics blog.

    Idaho Politics app: Get complete coverage and other resources throughout the session from our app for iOS and Android. Find it at your phone’s app store.

Last month, Gov. Butch Otter joked that Idaho’s greatest challenge in 2014 is “gettin’ me re-elected.”

On Friday, he moved to repair his reputation on education, turn the chapter on the biggest scandal of his administration and endorse reforms aimed at lowering a sky-high prison incarceration rate.

On his feet for an hour at a legislative briefing hosted by The Associated Press, the 71-year-old honed his campaign message as much as he anticipated next week’s opening of the Legislature.

Otter still hasn’t made a formal announcement but already has two challengers: Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher in the May 20 Republican primary and Democrat A.J. Balukoff in the Nov. 4 general election.

AP reporter John Miller tried to draw Otter out, noting the exposure he’d get from a room full of reporters with cameras, smartphones, digital recorders and even notepads.

“Good try,” replied Otter. “We have a lot of work to do between now and the primary. There is a cutoff date (March 14) for having to formally announce and formally file the papers, and between then and now I will be doing that.”

Otter still might have to set his schedule, but he has the campaign top of mind, beginning with his vow for “very aggressive fulfillment” of a promise to replenish K-12 spending.

“I believe, as I think most of you do, that education is going to be our No. 1 priority,” Otter said, engaging the reporters as he might a Lincoln Day dinner audience.

Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Larry Kenck has said that voters’ overwhelming rejection of the Students Come First laws in 2012 — championed by Otter and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna — means a big opportunity for Democrats. Balukoff, with credibility as a businessman and a member of the Boise School Board, says public schools will be his key issue.

Education is the one topic that gives Democrats a shot at statewide office. The 24-year run of Democratic Govs. Cecil Andrus and John Evans wouldn’t have happened without voters trusting them to do more for schoolkids.

Picking up the shattered bits of Students Come First, Otter touts 20 recommendations from his bipartisan task force as “innovative and visionary.”

He also played defense Friday, dramatically announcing that he’s pulling the plug on the troubled experiment of having 2,000 prisoners at the Idaho Correctional Center supervised by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America.

As an advocate of privatization since he entered public office in 1972, the pullback was a hard pill for Otter to swallow. Falsified time cards, rampant violence and the exit of all but one prospective contractor forced Otter to choke it down.

“In recognition of what’s happened, what’s happening, it’s necessary,” Otter said. “It’s the right thing to do. Is it the desirable thing to do for me? Not necessarily. We had better hopes for outcomes in privatization.”

To counter that bad news, Otter called upon reinforcement from the chairmen of House and Senate judiciary committees, Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, and Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston. The pair have been working on reforms aimed at reversing Idaho’s rate of incarcerating nonviolent offenders, which runs at twice the national rate.

The changes, Lodge said, can save $290 million. With an unspoken nod to former GOP Gov. Phil Batt — whose call for reform 20 years ago was a tree falling in an unpeopled forest — Otter said that shorter sentences make sense on both social and economic grounds.

“A lot of folks (go to prison after) a small mistake and they end up in prison for a couple of years and they turn out to be criminals as a result of that behavior that they’ve learned in prison,” Otter said. “We want to avoid that.”

Finally, Otter showed good manners, which he’ll need as Fulcher attempts to beat him about the head and neck. Fulcher, the governor said, will be invited to weekly leadership breakfasts in Otter’s office.

“I have no reason to change,” said Otter, playing Joe Cool. “The Senate has decided who their leadership team is and I’m going to welcome that team into my office.”

Otter’s performance Friday was far from perfect: He twice underestimated the cost of his education reforms by a thousand-fold and misspoke the details of Medicaid eligibility.

But facing his first serious primary challenge since 1994, Otter is reconditioning his incumbent’s muscles.

On Saturday night, when Otter and his wife, Lori, host the Governor’s Gala at Boise State University, he’ll continue to be a man with a plan.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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