BOISE – Butch Otter’s long-awaited turn as Idaho’s governor – he first ran for the post in 1978 and served as lieutenant governor for 14 years – hasn’t turned out quite the way he planned.
He promised improvements to education, a business-friendly climate, and a restructured, more-efficient state government that would be “the people’s servant” and allow Idahoans to “achieve greatness.”
Instead, he oversaw the state’s first cut to school funding as Idaho plunged into recession, and amid controversy and budget cuts, abandoned some big changes as quickly as they were proposed.
Otter’s had some notable successes. He championed a long-needed community college in the state’s biggest metropolitan center, established a new college scholarship fund in a state with few financial aid options, and saw his state hold the nation’s first regulated sport hunt for wolves, a move he hailed.
He boasts that more companies are considering moving to Idaho than ever, and he stepped onto the national stage, signing the first state legislation to sue the federal government over health care reform, a fight he relishes.
But Otter governed in fits and starts. He unveiled controversial plans to eliminate the state Department of Administration and later to end state funding for parks, Idaho Public Television and the state Human Rights Commission, then backed away and said he didn’t really mean it. He proposed big pay hikes for state employees, then oversaw pay cuts and furloughs.
The school funding cut was something his predecessor, former Gov. Jim Risch, had predicted would never happen. Otter also approved deep cuts to higher education even as enrollment in state colleges and universities swelled with job-seekers stung by a deep recession.
And the centerpiece initiative of Otter’s term, his plan to raise hundreds of millions in new revenue to invest in Idaho’s deteriorating transportation infrastructure, was defeated even though his party controlled three-quarters of the seats in the state Legislature. A defining moment came in 2009, when Otter vetoed 35 bills in two days – a state record – to try to bully lawmakers into backing his transportation plan. They thumbed their noses.
Today, the state is embroiled in lawsuits over a multimillion-dollar school broadband contract award and the firing of its transportation director. Its biggest agency, Health and Welfare, left health care providers unpaid for months in a contracting snafu and recently backed away from a plan to boot hundreds of dentists off the state’s Medicaid program on 30 days’ notice.
“In our state we are experiencing a government that is falling apart,” says Jana Kemp, a former GOP state representative who has mounted an independent campaign for governor.
“You know, it has been a tough four years,” Otter said, “but by working together we’ve made it through it, and it’s working. … We’ve made some good changes in government. We have to make sure that those changes stay put for the next four years, because the next four years are going to be equally tough.”
As Otter, 68, seeks re-election to a second and likely final term, he’s being challenged by an unusual Democratic opponent – a professional mediator, citizen activist and former Harvard University professor who had won praise from all sides, including from Otter, as a nonpartisan advocate for the “common interest” of all Idahoans. Keith Allred agreed to run as the Democratic Party’s candidate, but only after the party pledged to back his agenda, rather than the other way around.
Otter’s still heavily favored to win re-election in Idaho, the most Republican-voting state in the nation. But Allred has pounded on Otter for cutting school funding, for proposing a tax increase rather than tax cuts, and for siding with “special interests” over the “common interest” in the way he’s run the state, from tax policy to awarding state contracts.
Allred, 46, has lined up backing from big-name Republicans, particularly in eastern Idaho, prompting Otter’s perhaps clumsiest move of the campaign: bringing eastern Idaho businessman Frank VanderSloot to Boise for an event headlined by Mitt Romney to tell Mormon voters that they shouldn’t support Allred just because he, like VanderSloot and Romney, is Mormon. Otter is Catholic.
Political scientist Steve Shaw, of Northwest Nazarene University, said the last time an Idaho gubernatorial candidate made such a blatant religious appeal to Mormon voters was in 1978 when Allen Larsen ran for governor, “and he got trounced.”
Said Shaw, “This does kind of strike me as abnormal given modern Idaho political history. Most gubernatorial candidates just don’t touch it.”
The governor’s race also features a feisty campaign from independent Kemp; a candidate who legally changed his name from Marvin Richardson to Pro-Life; and Libertarian Ted Dunlap.
But it’s the contrast between Otter and Allred – both on an array of issues and on the basic questions of how best to govern the state – that’s dominated the race.
“We need a leader with a track record of beating back the extreme partisanship of the special interests of our day,” Allred declared at a recent debate. “That is not Butch Otter’s track record.” He faulted Otter for listening to only a narrow group of powerful people as he governs, and pledged to be more inclusive.
Otter responded, “You can’t operate a state on theory, folks; you have to operate a state with real decisions, and those decisions sometimes come at a velocity that would stagger your imagination.”