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Balukoff, Otter clash 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 on Thursday. (Associated Press)
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 on Thursday. (Associated Press)

BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and his Democratic challenger, A.J. Balukoff, went head-to-head over same-sex marriage and gay rights in a debate Thursday.

Otter said he’s upholding his oath of office 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 countered that “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,” he said. “This is about discrimination, treating all people with fairness and respect.”

The two met in a well-attended forum held by the City Club of Idaho Falls, but also broadcast simultaneously to the City Club of Boise at a downtown hotel where more than 100 people gathered.

“The Supreme Court has not settled the question on this yet,” Otter said. “Perhaps, God willing, we will be there within a week.” He added, “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.”

Balukoff said 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.

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 he met twice last year with members of a group that advocates for the inclusion and told them 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,” Otter said. “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.

“I would say that probably next year, most likely next year, you will see a hearing on adding the words,” Otter said.

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 a private company running its largest state prison.

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 and noted that CCA was a big donor to Otter’s campaigns,

Otter revealed that he “personally did not involve myself in the negotiations of the settlement with CCA” because of CCA’s campaign contributions.

“I recused myself and let the professionals make that decision,” Otter said. “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.”

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