State Politics

Idaho Gov. Otter discounts tax cuts; education ‘my priority’

Gov. Butch Otter signaled his opposition to proposed legislative tax cuts, defended his public schools budget and lobbied for his proposed increases for higher education at a Thursday morning breakfast talk with reporters.

Otter, in an expansive hourlong Q & A, also said he was “grateful” lawmakers are discussing public defense reform and options for expanding healthcare for low-income Idahoans, including Medicaid expansion. He said talks this year were not about whether to undertake such initiatives, but how to do so.

Without addressing specifically the $28 million tax cut approved by the House last week, the governor made clear he would not support any legislative actions that could threaten increased education spending and his other budget initiatives.

“My priority is my education package. My priority is the budget package that I put forward,” the governor said. “I would answer your question not directly about that tax bill, but about what my priorities are.”

In opening remarks, the governor noted that legislation bringing Idaho tax code into line with recent federal changes came a cost to the state of $45 million over the next two years, “and for those people who are asking for tax relief, that’s 45 million in tax relief because we are conforming to the federal code.”

Addressing criticism that his proposed K-12 education budget for next year only restores school funding to 2009 levels, the governor noted the $73 million set-aside for raising teachers salaries, plus the 20,000 increase in student population since then.

“We’re not only back to where we were but if you tally all those numbers, you’ll see that we’re in excess of those numbers,” the governor said. “So those who would suggest otherwise simply haven’t done their homework.”

Pressing his higher ed proposals, including a tuition lock for entering college students, the governor stressed the links between economic growth and investing in post-secondary learning. He said the state’s current 3.9 percent unemployment rate means 33,000 people are out of work in Idaho, but noted there are 21,000 jobs the state can’t fill. The only way to fill them, he said, was to provide the education people need “in order to take those jobs.”

“When they say to me, ‘Butch which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Do we cut taxes to increase business or do we build the workforce?’ Quite frankly business isn’t going to come if they don’t have a workforce,” he said.

The governor’s talk was the first substantive discussion with the media since his Jan. 11 state of the state address and the unveiling of his proposed state budget. The governor expounded on a number of topics, including state and national Republican politics.

The governor said he was “grateful” a Medicaid expansion bill was getting discussion this session in the Legislature. Two governor’s task forces have recommended expanding Medicaid to help thousands of Idahoans get access to healthcare and insurance, but Republican lawmakers have remained opposed.

As an alternative, the governor this year proposed a modest, $30 million state program that would subsidize basic preventive care for that group.

“We came up with this Idaho solution. If they want to push Medicaid expansion then they’re going to have to get a whole lot more encouragement than I’ve ever gotten for outright Medicaid expansion,” Otter said, referring to Democratic lawmakers and other expansion proponents.

“But have you noticed something?” he added. “The question is no longer do we need to do something, it’s where are we going to get the money for it. That’s a great and important step forward that we have had since Obamacare fell on us.”

Public defense reform: The governor sounded a similar note on improving the state’s public defender system. His budget set aside $5 million for improvements and legislators have recommended approximately that amount. The state was sued last year over deficiencies in the system, but the lawsuit was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.

“Someday maybe sooner than we want, some judge is going to let that lawsuit go forward, and then were going to be stressed into doing something against our will. We should do it,” he said I’m grateful that were having these discussions now.

Local Control: Two measures before lawmakers would supersede the authority of local jurisdictions. One would prevent localities from enacting bans on plastic bags, another would bar them from setting their own minimum wages. The governor demurred on the specifics of the legislation but said cities and counties are “creatures of the state.”

“In a general philosophy, I would say I don’t think it’s out of character or out of their responsibility for the state in a very limited way, mostly, to continue to have oversight over those entities that they’ve created.”

Politics: The governor said his Otterpac political action committee was intended to help lawmakers who had taken risks supporting his legislative priorities and would not be used to attack his political opponents within the Republican party. Those suspicious of Otterpac are people whose primaries the governor got involved in “because they got involved in mine. But they made the first move.”

On the remaining Republican presidential field, Otter said he continued to support candidates who were acting or former governors, based on their executive experience. He would not say which of the two remaining governors he preferred, Jeb Bush of Florida or John Kasich of Ohio.

“I like them both,” Otter said. I’m all in with the Republican nominee. But I could really support a former or present governor.”

Bill Dentzer: 208-377-6438, @IDSBillD

Otter seeks legislative input on children’s health, religious exemptions

Gov. Butch Otter is asking legislative leaders to review standards for safeguarding the health of children amid state religious exemptions from medical care.

At a press breakfast Thursday, the governor released a letter to sent to leadership asking them to convene a legislative work group to assess and review an earlier governor’s task force report on the subject.

Otter said protecting children was a “state responsibility,” but that the state “must at the same time respect religious tendencies that folks may have against medical attention.”

“At what point does that become child neglect and abuse? It is a question that I can’t answer, the legal eagles can’t answer,” he said.