Gov. Butch Otter declined comment Wednesday on whether he’s had discussions on becoming President-elect Donald Trump’s interior secretary, as speculation on potential nominees for the post seemed to shift away from Idaho’s top elected official.
“That’s all in flux,” the governor said, before making remarks to the annual Associated Taxpayers of Idaho conference. The governor said an unnamed “media type” had asked “would you answer the phone if the president called? And I said, ‘Oh yes, but you need to know I’ve been calling him.’ ”
Otter was in Washington, D.C., this week on government business related to ongoing discussions on federal efforts to protect the sage grouse. The National Defense Authorization Act, the annual defense bill, is held up in Congress over a provision in the bill that seeks to block implementation of the government’s management plan for the bird.
Otter said he had spoken to Vice President-elect Mike Pence after Pence was named to head Trump’s transition team. Otter and Pence were freshmen colleagues in Congress in 2001. He declined to describe what they spoke about.
Otter was mentioned in a Nov. 21 Reuters report as possible candidate for the Interior post. More recent reports have listed Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin and Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers as leading contenders.
Addressing the taxpayer group’s conference in what is considered a preview of the governor’s state of the state address that opens the legislative session, Otter said he remained committed to funding support for education. The state is entering the third year of a $350 million five-year plan to boost teachers salaries.
“I’m not taking my focus off education,” Otter said.
Although state unemployment is at 3.8 percent – a rate that in many quarters reflects near full employment – Otter said the state needs to do more for the 22,000 people who are out of work. And it’s not necessarily for lack of jobs, but for qualified labor.
“I can't drive down the street, even in Star, Idaho, my hometown, without seeing a ‘Help Wanted’ sign,” Otter said.
The governor said the state was running $100 million ahead of budget through the first four months of the fiscal year and that Idaho’s economy was growing at a stable rate.
“But in order to keep that, we’ve gotta be able to put those 22,000 people to work.,” he said. “We’ve got to give them as much hope as we have given the educational institutions in the state of Idaho with the five-year (funding) plan.”