BOISE – Gov. Butch Otter says if there’s one thing he’s learned in his first six weeks on the job, it’s that he can’t change things as quickly as he hoped.
“This place moves a lot faster than Washington, D.C., but still not as fast as the private sector,” said the former three-term congressman and retired Simplot Corp. executive. “Y’know, you can go to lunch and have a discussion over lunch and that can become your policy at 1 o’clock when you get back to the plant. You can’t do that here.”
A governor, he said, needs more patience – “and that’s not one of my long suits.”
Legislators and state officials have seen evidence of that in the tense fight over renovation and expansion of the state Capitol that dominated Otter’s first month in office and put him into a face-off with leaders from his own party who thought the issue had long since been settled.
“What he did is just classic Butch Otter,” said House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale. “We’ve had a lot of warnings – we know Butch. He’s been in public life for long enough that this should not surprise us at all.”
The political career of this Libertarian-leaning governor has been marked by standing up to his own party in Congress over his opposition to the Patriot Act, vetoing legislation to raise Idaho’s drinking age on state’s-rights grounds when he was a lieutenant governor filling in for the governor, and voting not just no, but “hell no,” on an anti-pornography bill back when he served in the Legislature in the 1970s.
Otter said, “Somebody up there yesterday, I think it was in the Senate, said, ‘Well, we’ve been working on this (Capitol renovation) for seven years.’ Precisely! And they expect me to consume all that they’ve done in seven years, in two weeks.” He added, “And I didn’t have any plan – nobody brought me any plans in here. I didn’t get the studies of everything until the stop-work order went out. So we needed a meeting of the minds.”
Otter’s way of bringing about that meeting of the minds – issuing a stop-work order that forced a constitutional crisis between the branches of state government – may not have led to the best solution, Denney said, but it sent a strong message: “He’s not here to grow government. I think that’s the message he wanted sent, and I think that’s the message people have heard.”
The resulting agreement left few happy. Lawmakers and the governor agreed to cut the Capitol expansion in half, though potential savings are uncertain. “I think had we built the original plan, that would’ve been fine, too,” said Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs.
Otter points back to his Simplot experience. “I always overbuilt the production plants, you know, the French fry plants,” he said. “We tailored the offices to our present needs, because in those offices we don’t make a dime – it’s out in those production plants where the money is made.”
In this case, Otter said, the “production plant” was the larger public meeting rooms lawmakers wanted to add in the Capitol expansion because the existing hearing rooms are small and crowded. What he opposed was additional office space for legislators and staff.
“If there is a product of government, it’s access for the public,” Otter said, “and them able to get answers to questions they have, able to get help that they need – the services the government is supposed to provide.”
Otter said he had to get over a “real philosophical speed bump” to approve any Capitol expansion, particularly if it might expand office space.
Behind the scenes
His style as governor has matched his cowboy rhetoric. He wears fancy boots, keeps his office door open, and has covered the walls there with Idaho cowboy art. He’s even rearranged the office, moving the governor’s desk to a far wall and setting up an open conversation group of four chairs around a coffee table in the center of the room.
He boasts of hosting a meeting there last week with all 19 House Democrats – “just like this, like a big campfire.”
Every day, Otter walks a few blocks to the local YMCA for his daily workout. Often, he can be seen on the streets downtown, waving, shaking hands, and exchanging greetings with people who walk or drive by.
Yet Otter hasn’t called a single news conference in his entire six weeks in office, and he refused to speak publicly about the renovation fight for an entire month, relying instead on back-room discussions.
“I’m not gonna get the cart ahead of the horse,” he said. “They’ve got some work to do upstairs.”
As for calling news conferences, he said, “Haven’t had to – because I’ve been accessible. Anybody that wants to get in and talk to ya, or sometimes I run into folks out in the hallway or in the gym working out. Y’know, sometimes we need to take a little time to arrange it, but by and large, anybody that’s wanted to talk to me about anything has talked to me about whatever they want.”
Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, can attest to that. “I had an issue I wanted to talk to him about. I called, and I had an appointment within 24 hours,” Rusche said. “He sat with me for 20 minutes.”
Getting his bearings
Otter ran campaign commercials criticizing the renovation and expansion project that lawmakers approved last year for the state Capitol. He was spurred into action, he said, when construction fences went up around the Capitol grounds, right outside his office window.
“When the fence went up and they started firing up the chain saws to cut down the trees, I thought, y’know, here’s a point of no return,” he said. “They cut down those trees, you know, that’s the signal. And so that’s when I told Keith to shut ‘er down.”
Keith Johnson, former state controller, is Otter’s director of the state Department of Administration, a key agency overseeing the statehouse renovation and expansion. It’s also an agency that Otter wants to disband by July 1, though lawmakers were skeptical at a budget hearing Friday that he could make all the required changes that quickly.
Otter also has proposed two major initiatives that have gone down to defeat in the Legislature: a grocery tax credit aimed at helping Idaho’s lowest-income families, and lowering the supermajority vote requirement to form a new community college district.
Geddes said Otter’s start has been a “little rocky,” but no more so than any other governor. “It takes them a little while to get their bearings and their feet under ‘em,” Geddes said.
Otter also garnered national publicity for telling a sportsmen’s rally that he wanted to bid for the first chance to shoot a wolf once they’re off the endangered species list. “I’m willing to shoot – I’m a hunter and a fisherman,” he told The Spokesman-Review.
He has no regrets, and says, “I haven’t had a bad day since I came here.”
Asked what would make his term successful and how he sees his chances of achieving that, Otter gives a grandiose answer: “Well, certainly solving the water issue, ending up with a superbalanced budget, and at the same time supplying education all the money they need and every agency all the money they need, and having a sizeable tax reduction.”
How would he do that? “I have no idea,” he said, laughing. “I gotta go.”