Gov. Butch Otter started his post-election farewell tour Friday with a friendly audience: Boise’s business community.
His lunch speech, hosted by the Boise Metro Chamber and listed in Otter’s weekly schedule sent out to media, featured both Otter and chamber members praising each other for their work over the years. The governor received two standing ovations.
And the chamber has been an important ally to the departing governor: It helped advocate for road-funding efforts, the College of Western Idaho and for various projects to rebuild from the Great Recession.
Otter, 76, is wrapping up 12 years as governor, a rare feat — tied with Gov. Robert Smylie, and one term short of Gov. Cecil Andrus, Idaho’s longest-serving chief executive. Otter previously represented Idaho’s 1st Congressional District in Congress, and is the state’s longest-serving lieutenant governor, holding the post from 1987 to 2000.
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Representatives of companies including Boise State, St. Luke’s, Merrill Lynch and Micron attended his speech. Not present was Otter’s wife, Lori, whom he said was battling repeated fevers from what doctors diagnosed as adult-onset mononucleosis. Otter asked those in attendance for their prayers.
Otter donned a suit rather than his signature blue jeans and cowboy hat. But he was clearly relaxed among receptive ears, and opened with a joke about a recent injury.
“I broke my ankle getting my foot out of my mouth,” Otter said with a chuckle. “That makes it an industrial accident, and I qualify for workers’ comp.”
He spent the majority of his 30-minute speech speaking about his positive relationships with the business community and the chamber. That started right after he was first elected governor, he said, and the chamber brought him a list of “the things you ought to be doing.”
“I will just tell you that my success, quite frankly, to a large extent has been because of the Boise Chamber,” Otter said.
Among those successes, Otter counted improvements in education and economic growth.
He spoke of the value of teachers in the classroom. Education is important, he said, because society needs people who can “reinvent” themselves and keep progress moving forward. That only happens when education is at the forefront, he said.
“You have to have a good education system that produces people that can do that,” Otter said. “We built those things because of your support.”
Otter also defended his efforts to guide Idaho through the recession, pointing to the state’s recent positive economic figures as a sign he took the right approach. Business Insider ranked Idaho’s economy No. 20 in the nation, highlighting statistics like its unemployment rate and job growth. The state had an unemployment rate of 2.7 percent in September, 1 percent lower than the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Do we have a ways to go? Yes, we do. And we’ll get there because we did the right thing through the recession,” Otter said.
And, he said, he believes Gov.-elect Brad Little — Otter’s longtime lieutenant governor and his handpicked successor — will extend his approach once Little is sworn in in January.
“We have a government that is coming on that is going to continue ... what we started when we went into the recession,” Otter said.
Otter did have one lament, saying he wished he could have done more to secure funding to maintain Idaho’s roads, highways and bridges and clear out a maintenance backlog on those structures. He mentioned it as something Little needs to stay focused on.
“Try to convince the Legislature that there is no difference between that debt that we are building in Washington, D.C., and deferred maintenance,” Otter said. “It’s deficit spending.”
He ended with a description of how he decided to return to state government from Congress — concluding it was a better route to pursue the reforms he sought. It is the states that make the United States great, he said, and those states need to thrive for the nation to thrive.
“This is a great republic, and we need to do what we can to get it back right,” Otter said. “The created can never be greater than the creator ... (and) the only way the republic can be saved is if we go home. That’s how we’ll save this great republic.”