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Otter shifts stand on 17th Amendment repeal

Gov. C.L. 'Butch' Otter, left, and Keith Allred, center, talk with moderator James Weatherby before their debate Wednesday Sept. 15, 2010 that was hosted by the City Club of Boise at the Grove Hotel in Boise, Idaho. (AP Photo/Times-News / Ashley Smith)
Gov. C.L. 'Butch' Otter, left, and Keith Allred, center, talk with moderator James Weatherby before their debate Wednesday Sept. 15, 2010 that was hosted by the City Club of Boise at the Grove Hotel in Boise, Idaho. (AP Photo/Times-News / Ashley Smith)

BOISE - Idaho Gov. Butch Otter declared during a political debate today that he doesn’t favor repeal of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - though he’s been sharply critical of the amendment for the past year, including in his keynote speech at a Tea Party rally in Spokane in April.

The amendment shifted selection of U.S. senators from state Legislatures to a vote of the people, and repealing it is a plank in Idaho’s Republican Party platform.

The governor’s comments came as he and Democratic challenger Keith Allred sparred over everything from education cuts to wilderness to whether Idaho should investigate its state Tax Commission for alleged special deals to influential taxpayers.

Asked directly about the 17th Amendment during a debate before an audience of more than 400 at the Boise City Club, Otter said, “I want Idahoans to elect our U.S. senators.”

He added, “I have said time and time again, and I’ll say again, my focus is on the 10th Amendment. I do not believe you’re going to repeal the 17th Amendment, and have spent no time on repealing the 17th Amendment. That was a decision, and a very populist decision that was made in the early 20th Century, and I believe that decision is one that is going to stand no matter who wants the 17th Amendment repealed.”

Otter, who is seeking a second term as governor, said during his Spokane speech in April, “All of the amendments to the Constitution in one form or another, some of ‘em I have a serious objection with, like the 17th Amendment, the direct election of United States senators. You know, that was the first big loss we had in states’ rights.”

Since then, he’s been non-committal in his comments about the issue, saying he understands concerns about electing senators by popular vote rather than having legislatures choose them, but didn’t think the issue was likely to be addressed. Backers of repeal contend it would increase states’ rights by giving state legislatures a more formal say in the federal government.

Otter’s Democratic challenger, Keith Allred, responded today, “Here at the City Club in Boise, Butch Otter tells you that he thinks Idahoans should elect their own senators, but when he goes across the state line in Spokane to speak to the Tea Party, he says that the 17th Amendment was one of the biggest mistakes we’ve made.”

Otter’s campaign spokesman, Ryan Panitz, said Monday afternoon that Otter “has always disagreed with the 17th Amendment but from a practical stance, repealing it isn’t going to happen.”

Allred, a professional mediator, citizen activist and former Harvard professor, said, “This is what you see with career politicians, the flipping and flopping back and forth depending on their audience. I have been consistent and clear. Idahoans can, should elect their own senator.”

The issue was one of a broad array the two major-party candidates discussed during the hour-long debate, their second of the campaign. Two more faceoffs are planned, including one to be broadcast live statewide on Idaho Public Television Oct. 28, the Thursday before the Nov. 2 election.

Allred said his goal is to “advance our priorities, not the priorities of political parties and special interests.” As for those priorities, he said, “Two rise above the rest - first keep the tax burden on Idaho families low, second provide a great education for every Idaho school kid. You know, we’re doing poorly on both those right now.”

Otter said, “Four years ago, I was honored and humbled to become your governor, and since that time the economic landscape not only of Idaho but of the entire nation has changed very dramatically, and we have some difficult times to deal with.” Otter said he’s pushed to establish constitutional principles, boost and diversify the economy, increase workforce development and educational opportunities, and push back the federal government on its “constant encroachment.” He said, “We’ve had successes in every one of those areas.”

Asked about this year’s unprecedented cuts in funding for Idaho’s public schools, Otter said, “Obviously it was painful for us to do.” Allred said the cuts went too far. “During the Otter Administration we have let tax deadbeats steal textbooks from Idaho schoolkids,” he declared.

The two took opposite stands on Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson’s proposed Boulder-White Clouds wilderness legislation, with Otter opposing it and Allred supporting it.

Asked if he supports a “proper investigation” into allegations of special deals at the state Tax Commission for influential taxpayers, Otter said he already ordered one two years ago, and reforms it recommended were adopted. He noted that the tax compromise process was in place “long before Butch Otter became governor.”

Allred responded, “This is just one of the many areas special interests get better treatment than everyday Idahoans, and Idahoans are frustrated about that. … We’ve got a problem there and Butch Otter is telling you it’s just fine the way it is, I don’t think it is.”

Also on the ballot in Idaho’s governor’s race are two independents, Boise businesswoman Jana Kemp and a candidate who’s legally changed his name to “Pro-Life,” and Libertarian candidate Ted Dunlap.

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