Education and the economy were hot topics during Friday’s debate between Gov. Butch Otter and his Democratic challenger, A.J. Balukoff.
Balukoff attacked the two-term Republican governor’s record on school achievement and the state’s economic performance.
“Governor, under your watch we are second to last in school spending,” said Balukoff, a longtime chairman of the Boise School Board and prominent businessman.
He tied Idaho’s low-wage economy to lackluster educational investment.
The state isn’t meeting its constitutional mandate to fund public education adequately, and it “shows up in our results,” Balukoff said. Too few high school graduates go on to college or workforce training, he said, and many of Idaho’s workers struggle to make ends meet in low-wage jobs.
“We’ve heard Gov. Otter say everything is awesome,” Balukoff said. “He’s out of touch.”
Otter, seeking a rare third term, described Idaho as a fiscally conservative state with robust job growth and innovative residents. He said he feels positive about the state’s future.
“We do a good job of creating an environment for businesses to thrive,” Otter said. “I reject this negativity; this isn’t Idaho.”
The debate was the first between the two men, and also featured Libertarian candidate John Bujak and an independent candidate, who legally changed his name to Pro-Life.
The race has attracted national interest, with some political pundits suggesting that Otter could be vulnerable during the November election. Otter captured just 51 percent of the votes in the GOP primary, and divisions within Idaho’s Republican Party could steer votes to Bujak.
The Coeur Group, a service organization for young professionals, sponsored the debate, which drew a packed audience to the Coeur d’Alene Library over the lunch hour.
Otter defended his record on education and the economy during the lively exchange. He accused his challengers of “cherry picking” statistics to support their views.
Idaho may rank 49th in overall school spending, but it’s fourth in the nation for the proportion of state general fund dollars spent on education, Otter said.
He cited scores of Idaho’s eighth-graders on standardized math and reading tests as evidence that students are outperforming peers in other states. And Idaho’s teachers earn an average of $51,000, which compares favorably with teacher salaries in other states, Otter said.
He also touted the state’s 4.7 percent unemployment rate, saying that Idaho’s job growth is helping lead the nation out of the recession.
But Balukoff said Idaho lags by most standards of personal income and educational achievement. About half of the state’s workforce earns less than $11.50 per hour, he said.
As a state, Idaho “needs a better marketing campaign than ‘low taxes’ and ‘we work cheap,’ ” Balukoff said.
He and Bujak, the Libertarian candidate, also criticized Otter’s administration for a series of scandals that they said cost the state millions of dollars. The scandals included a failed attempt to privatize the state’s largest prison; the firing of the first female Idaho transportation director, which led to a wrongful termination lawsuit; and questions surrounding the legality of contracts to bring broadband Internet service to Idaho schools.
Bujak, a former Canyon County prosecutor, touted himself as an alternative to Otter for disgruntled Republicans.
“I’ve watched our leadership heading in the wrong direction,” Bujak said. “We’ve abandoned our conservative values.”
He told audience members that re-electing Otter will keep Idaho on the same course and that electing Balukoff would lead to gridlock between a Democratic governor and Republican Legislature.
“You need to look seriously at a third-party candidate,” he said. “We have a chance to make history.”
Pro-Life, an organic strawberry farmer formerly known as Marvin Richardson, condemned public education as “socialist” during the debate and said it should be abolished. His eight children were homeschooled, which probably saved the state “about $500,000,” he said.
Candidates were asked for their stance on the legalization of marijuana. Otter, Balukoff and Pro-Life were opposed. Bujak said he would sign a bill legalizing marijuana if the Legislature brought one to him, but doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.
However, Bujak said he’s inspired by Washington voters’ decision to legalize marijuana in defiance of the federal government.
“Having Washington legalize marijuana did something important from a state’s rights perspective,” he said. “That’s the lesson to be learned.”
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