BOISE – About a week out from the primary election, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has launched his first TV campaign commercial, showing him in a cowboy hat, riding a horse, touting tax cuts and explaining how he’s “fought EPA.”
“I follow the Code of the West: stay true to your brand and your values,” Otter says in the ad, referring to a cowboy ethics code published in a 2004 book by Wall Street veteran James P. Owen titled, “Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West.”
The ad’s not running in the Spokane TV market, but it’s running across Idaho, the campaign said, including on cable TV in North Idaho.
In the 30-second spot, Otter boasts, “I’ve balanced the budget without raising taxes – in fact, I’ve cut taxes $150 million.”
Otter is referring to the phased-in grocery tax credit, which this year rebated more than $100 million to Idaho taxpayers; the cut in personal property taxes on business equipment that lawmakers approved last year, for nearly $20 million a year; and the income tax cuts they enacted the year before for more than $30 million, according to his campaign manager, Jayson Ronk.
Former chief state economist Mike Ferguson, who served under five Idaho governors including Otter and now heads the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, said, “That’s probably a defensible number.”
He noted, “There are other tax cuts that have occurred in the form of sales tax exemptions.”
At the same time that Idaho has cut taxes, it also decreased school funding, prompting local voters to pass millions more in property tax overrides, raising local property taxes. In 2000, local supplemental tax levies for schools totaled about $60 million, Ferguson said; last year, they were nearly $190 million. “They more than tripled,” he said. “The problem is, that is what I would call collateral damage.”
Though it’s an “absolutely valid argument” that those tax increases have offset Idaho’s cuts, Ferguson said, that argument relies on the assumption that had Idaho not cut taxes, it would have funded schools at a higher level and voters wouldn’t have had to pass local levies.
“Those effects are not distinct and items that you can nail down, as far as legislative action,” Ferguson said.
Otter says in the ad, “I’m fighting to take back control of Idaho’s water quality control standards from the EPA.”
Ronk said that refers to legislation that passed this year to start an eight-year phased-in takeover of primacy for wastewater permitting from the Environmental Protection Agency. The state Department of Environmental Quality got three new employees in next year’s budget as part of the move, which was championed by the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, a business lobbying group.
“It’ll be a multi-year process to actually get that,” Ronk said. “The state is going to have to work with EPA to gain control.” Idaho is one of just a handful of states that doesn’t have primacy for that type of permitting under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, which means EPA handles Idaho’s permits rather than the state DEQ.
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