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Opinion >  Column

Eye on Boise: Gov. Butch Otter’s name floated as potential agriculture secretary in Trump administration

Given the on-and-off announcements about various prospective Trump appointees in recent days, it’s with some hesitance that I pass along this maybe-news: Idaho Gov. Butch Otter now is supposedly among the candidates being vetted for secretary of agriculture.

Otter was in San Diego at a Western Governors Association conference on Wednesday afternoon when this news first surfaced; I spoke with Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who had been serving as acting governor while Otter was out of state, and he said he’d just heard from Otter Communications Director Mark Warbis that Otter press secretary Jon Hanian had “confirmed that yes, the governor is being vetted.”

“This is the first I heard of it,” said Little, who would step up to become governor if Otter took a Cabinet position. “That’s news to me.”

Hanian, who was with Otter for the WGA conference in San Diego, confirmed it. “What the governor did tell me is that he said he can confirm he is being vetted as one of the candidates being considered for that position,” Hanian said. “But that’s really all we know. We don’t know who the other candidates are; we don’t have a time frame.”

Little already has announced that he’s running for governor in 2018, when Otter will have completed his third and final four-year term. Former state Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, also has announced his candidacy, and 1st District GOP congressman Raul Labrador has been mulling a possible run.

Little said earlier, when Otter was rumored to be in the running for the secretary of the interior slot, that Otter showed Little a two-page list of potential candidates, “and his name wasn’t even on that.” And in the past week, the national rumor mill had Trump selecting U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington for Interior, then also considering Labrador, and then tapping Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke instead.

If there’s a similar long list floating around for secretary of agriculture, Little said, he wouldn’t be surprised if Otter’s on it. “There’s probably multiple vetting teams,” he said.

Little noted that Otter’s the governor of a state with major agricultural interests. “It’s reasonable, with the governor’s experience in his private life, in Congress, as governor,” Little said. Plus, Otter and first lady Lori Otter were the honorary campaign chairs for the Trump presidential campaign in Idaho.

“I think he’d be great,” Little said. “Right now, one of the biggest challenges facing agriculture is the value of the dollar and what that does to commodity prices. And frankly, because of Butch’s experience in trade, nobody understands that better. Obviously, in Idaho, we’d be delighted because he’d be over the Forest Service.”

Little noted that Otter helped establish a state-federal timber harvesting partnership under federal Good Neighbor Authority that’s drawing attention from other states; in September, the Idaho Department of Lands auctioned off its first federal timber sale under the project, in the Nez Perce National Forest. A second project in the Payette National Forest is under way. “That’s very much to his credit,” Little said.

“I think he’d be a great secretary. But he’s a good governor. So whatever he wants to do,” Little said. “You know, the proof will be in the final announcement.”

Crane: House GOP wants tax cuts

Idaho House Republicans are looking to tax cuts “first thing out of the box” in the upcoming legislative session, House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa, told reporters last week. Crane, who spoke at the Idaho Press Club’s Legislative Bootcamp for reporters who will be covering this year’s legislative session, noted the growing state surplus. “We feel like it’s time that we give some of the money back to the citizens that have been paying the bill,” he said.

He’s anticipating efforts to cut individual and corporate income taxes.

“What is being talked about is simply buying down the tax rate a tenth at a time,” Crane said. He’s also expecting discussion of further cuts in personal property tax, which is the tax businesses pay on inventory and equipment; most of that already has been eliminated, except for the largest business taxpayers. Crane said there’s talk of moving the current $100,000 exemption per taxpayer per county up to “maybe $200,000, $250,000,” depending on the impact on counties.

Crane said he’s anticipating that House Republicans won’t be alone in pushing for tax cuts. “I think that the Senate would like to be a willing partner in this,” he said.

Crane said he’s also anticipating legislative proposals from Secretary of State Lawerence Denney to toughen campaign finance reporting laws, inspired, in part, by the unsuccessful voter initiative pressed by former Rep. Holli Woodings, D-Boise. And he’s expecting House Tax Chairman Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, to push for general fund money to boost transportation.

Lawmakers will consider the recommendations of an interim legislative committee on the state’s health coverage gap, Crane said, but he said he doubts Medicaid expansion will be considered.

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