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Idaho governor and legislators remain at odds

Gov. Butch Otter vetoes a stack of 25 budget bills on Tuesday. (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)
Gov. Butch Otter vetoes a stack of 25 budget bills on Tuesday. (Betsy Russell / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter vetoed 25 bills on Tuesday, after his own party in the House overwhelmingly killed his transportation plan.

House members followed up the bill’s 15-55 defeat by bringing out a large cake decorated with twinkling candles, to commemorate the 100th day of this year’s legislative session.

Otter, after banging his giant, red “VETO” stamp on a slew of key bills that fund portions of state government, declared, “I think the public ought to start calling the Legislature tonight and say, ‘Pass those transportation bills and get out of town.’”

Though 11 House Democrats voted for the transportation bill Tuesday, which includes a 6-cent gas tax increase over two years to fund more road maintenance, only four Republicans voted in favor. They included Reps. George Eskridge, R-Dover, and Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake.

Eskridge said, “Maybe it’s time for some of us to put aside some of our heartfelt differences and look at a reasonable compromise that serves the people of Idaho.”

House Republican leaders said their caucus just doesn’t favor a tax increase in a recession. “The governor has definitely made the case for the need — it is the economy,” said House Speaker Lawerence Denney. The House has now rejected a gas tax increase six times this year.

Otter renewed his pledge from a day earlier — when he vetoed 10 bills — to veto all budget bills for state agencies until lawmakers send him a transportation funding increase.

“They’re all bills that need to be addressed by the Legislature before they go home, and they know that,” Otter said.

The bills he vetoed Tuesday included the budgets for next year for the Department of Water Resources, the Industrial Commission, the Commerce Department, the Military Division, the Arts Commission, the Division of Human Resources, Idaho Public TV, the Blind Commission, the liquor dispensary and more.

“We’re going to continue to take this kind of action until we see some concrete movement. They need to know that I’m serious,” the governor said.

Weary lawmakers, who are serving in what’s now the second-longest legislative session in state history, weren’t happy.

“It’s a little disheartening, after doing all that work,” said House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly. First thing Tuesday morning, the Legislature’s joint budget committee reconvened and passed new versions of the eight budgets Otter vetoed a day earlier. But those new bills still have to pass both houses and go to the governor’s desk.

“After six votes … we’ve tried and tried and tried to do a gas tax, and the House is about worn out,” Roberts said.

Only three House Democrats supported the last gas tax proposals in the House. House Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, said much of his caucus switched because of a deal to soften controversial bills to cut education. Just as the House took up the transportation bill, HB 96a, the Senate took up amendments to the education bills.

The amendments, sponsored by Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, restored funding for busing for academic field trips and for an early teacher retirement incentive program, among other changes.

However, Goedde said he believes the $4.5 million in school funding that’s restored for field trips and early retirement next year will have to be made up elsewhere in the school budget. He said his preference is to trim budgets for textbooks and classroom supplies to make up the difference. Otter, who had only six vetoes last year, now has issued the second-most vetoes since records started being kept in 1959. The only Idaho governor to exceed Otter’s 35 vetoes this session was Gov. Don Samuelson in 1967, who vetoed 39 bills.

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or