BOISE — During today’s debate with Gov. Butch Otter, Democratic rival Keith Allred painted himself as a citizen activist fighting a career politician whose three decades in office align him with special interests, not Idaho residents.
Allred slammed Otter’s failed pushes in 2009 to hike gas taxes and to double registration fees for car owners — while only boosting fees on heavy trucks by 5 percent. Allred favors cutting the gas tax, then boosting fees on trucks to make up the difference.
“He was serving special interests at everyday Idahoans’ expense,” said Allred, a 45-year-old former Harvard University professor and founder of the nonpartisan government reform group The Common Interest.
Otter, who at 68 has been lieutenant governor, congressman and now state chief executive since 1987, fought back, touting credentials as a budget-balancing conservative unafraid to take on the federal government — attributes that have made him one of the state’s most popular politicians.
Re-elect him to the “best job” he’s ever had and he’ll continue his fight against “the constant and incessant effort by the federal government to tell the state of Idaho, and the other 49 states, how to run their business,” Otter promised to a crowd of about 300 at the event.
The debate, sponsored by the City Club of Idaho Falls, was the first of at least four meetings between Otter and Allred before the Nov. 2 election.
Although Otter and Allred joked with moderator David Adler about breaking debate rules that limited some exchanges, Allred left little doubt about his feelings for his rival.
“It’s good to do this with career politicians who have learned all the tricks,” he said.
“This is the first college professor I’ve ever ran against,” Otter responded.
They also jabbed at each other over public education, with Allred insisting the governor should have done more to protect schools rather than approving $128 million in cuts from this fiscal year’s schools budget.
“When Gov. Otter says there were no options, that’s just wrong,” Allred said.
Otter insisted he’s made education a priority. As more tax revenue rolls with an economic upswing, Otter pledged schools would be the first to benefit.
“You can’t spend more money than the people are paying you,” Otter said.
Taxes were an issue of ire between the two. Allred wants to consider the repeal of some of the 129 sales tax exemptions worth about $1.7 billion annually that Idaho offers to industry, then use that revenue to reduce taxes for everybody.
Otter said such a move would be tantamount to a tax increase for businesses that lose their breaks. Past efforts to dump exemptions in the Idaho Legislature have also proven difficult.
“This is beginning to sound an awful lot like change and hope,” Otter said. “When you change that tax structure, somebody still has to pay for it.”
Allred responded with the theme that will likely dominate the campaign’s next 77 days: Tax exemptions exist for one group and not another because the one group had a better lobbyist.
“It’s not the small business sector that gets the tax exemptions, it’s the powerful and connected,” Allred said.
But the candidates didn’t fight over everything. They reached a consensus over supporting Idaho’s constitutional amendment limiting marriage to unions between men and women.
And both favor French company Areva Inc.’s plan to build a $2 billion uranium enrichment plant just west of Idaho Falls, a project dear to many eastern Idaho residents.
Decades of nuclear research and development at the nearby Idaho National Laboratory — and thousands of accompanying jobs — underpin the region’s economy.