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Opinion >  Column

Eye on Boise: Otter, reflecting on career: ‘Congress was the part I liked least’

In this Jan. 5, 2018 file photo, Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter speaks to reporters about the upcoming 2018 legislative session at the State Capitol building Boise, Idaho. (Otto Kitsinger / AP)
In this Jan. 5, 2018 file photo, Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter speaks to reporters about the upcoming 2018 legislative session at the State Capitol building Boise, Idaho. (Otto Kitsinger / AP)

The first time Idaho Gov. Butch Otter came to the Idaho state Capitol, he was a fourth-grader on a class field trip from St. Joseph’s Catholic School just down the street. “I marveled at the size of this,” he told nearly 200 attendees at a state payroll conference last week in the Capitol’s Lincoln Auditorium.

The next time he came to the Capitol was as a high school page, carrying notes between members of the Idaho House, who at that time had no floor phones. Then he was back as a junior from the College of Idaho, working as a research liaison “for none other than then-state senator from Payette, Idaho, Jim McClure. God rest his soul, what a great career he had,” Otter said. “Mine pales in comparison to his.”

After leaving active military duty in 1969, Otter said he was back as the parliamentarian of the state Senate and the Senate secretary for two sessions, before he decided to run for the Legislature himself and returned as a state representative from Caldwell.

He then spent years traveling the world to help build Simplot International, visiting 83 countries. “So I’ve had a great life when I think about my world outside Idaho, but my world inside of Idaho is ever big as all those other places I went to,” Otter said. “Idaho has really been my life.”

Looking back over his 36 years in public office, including 14 years as the state’s longest-serving lieutenant governor, three terms in Congress and now three terms as governor, Otter, 76, said, “The Congress was the part that I liked least. Nobody was getting along. I thought it was bad then – it’s terrible now,” he said to laughter.

“I’d decided after my last election, even before I took the oath of office for the 109th Congress, I decided I wasn’t going back to a fourth term,” he said. “I said, ‘Well, I’m going to come home and run for governor, and I did. That was probably the greatest political moment of my life was to stand on the front steps … to take the oath of office and promise to do what I felt like I was doing all my life, and that was obeying the Constitution, enforcing the laws, and trying to obey most of those laws myself.”

He spoke of being governor just when the state descended into a deep recession that shrank the state budget from $3.2 billion to $2.2 billion. He credited state employees for sticking with the state, even during those down years when the budget was cut and workers got no raises.

“We valued our employees, we valued their talents, and we hoped that they would stay with us,” he said. “But I can tell you this: When we do get a little meat on our ribs, those investments that we haven’t been able to make are going to be the investments that we’re going to make. I think we’re on trend now to make those investments … so that we are competitive.”

Otter said the state benefited greatly from having big cash reserves when the recession hit, and he’s proud that those now have built back up once again to more than $500 million. “We’ve got a little cushion,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we need to use it up right away. … I hope that same feeling will be present in the next administration, because I can tell you that has served the Otter administration well.”

The outgoing governor said one of his proudest accomplishments was creating a five-year plan for education, “out of the ashes, into the real world, something very structural and something that has paid off very well.” It followed the voters’ rejection of the “Students Come First” school reform plan, and finally brought a halt to the big annual fights over the school budget that marked every legislative session he could remember.

“You’ve got one year left on that five-year plan,” Otter said. “And it’s my hope that the next governor and the next superintendent of public instruction will add four more years to that one year.”

Idaho should be planning five years ahead for education, he said, just as it does for roads. “I’m going to encourage my successor, just keep that five-year plan,” he said. “Keep that horizon out there far enough that everyone can see where we’re going from the get-go. And you’ll find that you’ll bring peace to the schoolyard, and if you bring peace to the schoolyard, you’ll bring peace to the Legislature.”

He noted the state’s much-improved budget position. “Couple that with the fact that we’ve given over a billion dollars in tax relief since the great recession and our budgets are looking pretty good,” he said.

Otter shared that his decision to run for a third term four years ago was something of a last-minute one. “Actually I hadn’t decided to do it till it practically fell into my lap that I was going to run for a third term, but I’m glad I did,” he said. After the tough economic times the state went through during his first two terms, he said, “That third term was my reward. … Having governed through the bad times, what a delight. What a refreshing opportunity, to serve during the good times. … It’s been a great ride, and I can’t thank you all enough.”

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state Capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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