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Otter, Balukoff clash in debate over same-sex marriage, gay rights

Republican Incumbent C.L. "Butch" Otter, right, and Democratic Challenger A.J. Balukoff laugh as they compliment each other's ties after the gubernatorial debate hosted by the City Club of Idaho Falls at the Idaho State University Bennion Student Union Building Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014.  (Associated Press)
BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and his Democratic challenger, A.J. Balukoff, went head-to-head in a debate Thursday over same-sex marriage and gay rights. Otter said he’s upholding his oath of office to defend the state Constitution by continuing to defend the state’s ban on gay marriage. Idaho isn’t anti-gay, Otter said. “Idaho is pro-traditional marriage, and I’m not going to do anything to put that in danger.” One person in the large audience applauded, and Otter joked, “Thank you, Mom.” Balukoff said, “Discrimination is discrimination and it’s always wrong. When we take that oath of office to uphold the Constitution, that is not only the Idaho Constitution but the U.S. Constitution also. … No matter how many of our citizens vote to pass the law, we cannot pass a law that violates the United States Constitution. This is about discrimination, treating all people with fairness and respect. Regardless of what our belief may be, we still need to treat them equally.” The two faced off in a well-attended forum put on by the City Club of Idaho Falls, but also broadcast simultaneously to the City Club of Boise, where more than 100 people gathered at a downtown hotel to watch. “The Supreme Court has not settled the question on this yet,” Otter said. “Perhaps, God willing, we will be there within a week. Right now there’s a stay on it for Idaho. Idaho’s the only state that has a stay on it.” He said, “States are the ones that should be in charge and have always been in charge of the definition and the issuance of licenses for legal marriage.” Asked if he would lead an effort to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho Human Rights Act if he’s elected governor, banning discrimination on those bases, Balukoff said, “I would.” Bills to add those words to the law have been proposed each year for nearly a decade, but the Legislature has never granted the bill a hearing. “When you have a group of citizens that ask for a hearing, it just shows respect to grant them that hearing,” Balukoff said. “To stonewall for eight years is not acceptable. … We should grant the hearing, and in my view we should strengthen our human rights statute to include the four words.” Otter said, “I met twice with the group last year that was advocating for adding the words. And the two times I met with them I agreed that the Legislature should hold a hearing. And I believe that the Legislature was that close to doing just that, until the antics started up, until we found people hiding in the closet, until they started stopping people from doing their legally elected jobs. … People that represented people right here in this room could not get into the chambers to do their jobs. Civil disobedience, when it stops duly elected legislators from doing their job, then I can understand the angst that it caused in the Legislature and finally the resistance.” Protests calling for lawmakers to “add the words” resulted in the arrests of 109 people on 192 separate misdemeanor charges during this year’s Idaho legislative session, when protesters blocked doorways at the state Capitol and refused to leave. Those arrested included prominent members of the clergy, along with gay rights advocates and an array of local citizens from various walks of life. “I would say that probably next year, most likely next year you will see a hearing on adding the words,” Otter said. Balukoff responded, “That’s good news. I’m glad that we will show enough respect to the folks to show that we will have a hearing.” Otter said, “All I’m asking is that they show the Legislature the same respect.” The two also clashed repeatedly on education issues, with Balukoff, longtime president of the Boise School Board, charging that Otter has presided over serious underfunding of schools and Otter defending Idaho’s efforts through the economic downturn. And they differed on jobs and the economy; Medicaid expansion; and Idaho’s troubled and now canceled experiment with having a private company run its largest state prison. After Balukoff sharply criticized Otter for agreeing to a $1 million settlement with Corrections Corp. of America for overbilling and other problems before a criminal investigation had been launched, noting that CCA was a big donor to Otter’s campaigns, Otter offered a new revelation: “I personally did not involve myself in the negotiations of the settlement with CCA because I had received money from CCA for my campaign,” he said. “So I recused myself and let the professionals make that decision. I did not.” Then he added: “By the way, that final agreement, if (there is) anything that we find out in the FBI investigation, that agreement is set aside and then we can go after CCA.”