Eye On Boise

Next debate: GOP primary race for Guv

The last of the "Idaho Debates" for the May 25 primary election is tomorrow night, when GOP candidates for governor will face off before a live audience, in a debate to be broadcast live statewide on Idaho Public Television. Thus far, incumbent Gov. Butch Otter has declined to attend; candidates scheduled to debate include GOP challengers Rex Rammell and Sharon Ullman. The debate starts at 8 p.m. Boise time; doors open an hour before in the Capitol Auditorium for those who'd like to attend, and close 15 minutes before the start of the debate. There are 130 seats available for the public on a first-come, first-served basis.

The Idaho Debates are sponsored by the Idaho Press  Club and the League of Women Voters, along with co-sponsors including The Associated Press, Boise State Radio, Idaho Allied Dailies, Idaho State Broadcasters Association, The Idaho Statesman, KIVI-TV and KBOI-TV; there's more info here, and you can click below to read a piece by AP reporter John Miller on the gubernatorial primary race.

GOP foes: Otter vulnerable after 2009 gas tax duel
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Republican Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter has been called plenty.

Libertarian. Capt. William Call, his favorite character in the "Lonesome Dove" novel. Even "Mr. Tight Jeans," for winning a barroom contest in the 1990s. But "tax and spend" Butch?

His best-known rivals in the May 25 GOP primary, Ada County Commissioner Sharon Ullman and former elk rancher Rex Rammell from Rexburg, contend Otter is vulnerable after his failed 2009 plan to raise Idaho's gas tax, hike vehicle registration fees and other driving-related surcharges by $174 million.

Rammell and Ullman, who are both courting the tea party movement for support, say Otter's push to boost taxes during a deep recession shows he's lost touch with those who elected him, instead siding with special interests like the construction industry.

In March, Otter rehabilitated himself among some conservatives by leading a lawsuit against the federal government challenging President Barack Obama's health-insurance reforms.

But Ullman points out Otter still has a 15-person task force meeting on unresolved transportation funding issues.

That panel could again recommend raising gas taxes and fees — after the November general election.

"If he gets re-elected, which Butch Otter do we get?" said Ullman. "The 2009 'tax and-spend' version, or the 2010 'no new taxes' version? I don't think voters should have to take the chance of getting the 2009 version back."

Otter, in elected office since 1987, including stints as lieutenant governor and U.S. representative, has five primary foes: Walt Bayes, a perennial candidate and abortion foe; Tamara Wells, of Post Falls, who promises to "detaxify" Idaho; suspenders-clad Pete Peterson, who is selling underwear on his campaign website; and Ullman and Rammell.

In 2008, Rammell ran a failed independent campaign against Jim Risch for U.S. Senate perceived by many as a personal vendetta. Risch, as temporary governor in 2006, had sent wildlife agents to kill Rammell's escaped elk.

He announced his campaign against Otter for governor in April 2009, just as Otter's standoff with conservative Republicans in the Idaho House over the gas tax hike was escalating. Otter vetoed dozens of bills and held lawmakers hostage in Boise in a failed bid to twist their arms.

Rammell, now touring Idaho towing a 16-foot green-and-yellow dinosaur, says Otter's push to hike taxes convinced him he'd made the right move.

"He opened the door to defeat with his gas-tax debacle," Rammell said. "No conservative in their right mind would support raising taxes in the middle of a recession."

Otter, who has declined to debate opponents before the May 25 primary, has heard from some prospective voters about the 2009 tax fight, concedes Debbie Field, his campaign manager.

"It's people who probably will be a percentage that will vote for Sharon or Rex," Field said. "But it's easy to posture, without some reality."

And state Sen. John McGee, an Otter supporter on the 2009 gas tax issue, said voters should respect the governor's willingness to take an unpopular-but-necessary stand to boost safety and speed commerce on roads that connect a state separated by rugged mountains, winding rivers and vast deserts.

"He showed a tremendous amount of courage and leadership in addressing the problem," said McGee.

The 2009 gas tax battle may also be fading from voters' minds.

This year, the rancher and former J.R. Simplot Co. manager has rebranded himself: He was the first U.S. governor to sign a bill to sue the federal government over Obama's and the Democratic Congress's health insurance reforms.

Conservatives cheered.

In the 2009 gas tax fight, "there was a heightened feeling Otter may not see things our way and may have lost some of his conservative principles," said Brendan Smythe, president of Tea Party Boise. "Since then, we've seen a shift in attitudes. His biggest victory for our side was the Health Freedom Act."

Will it stay that way?

Otter's transportation funding task force won't report back until December 2010, after November's election against likely Democratic challenger Keith Allred.

Ullman thinks that's no coincidence.

"He chose the people on the committee, what do you think they're going to recommend?" she said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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