In shift, U of I to pay full cost of Otter poll on transportation needs, funding

Concerns about the credibility of a poll funded by the trucking and construction industries that would benefit from new spending on roads and bridges prompted the University of Idaho to take over the entire expense of a survey sought by Gov. Butch Otter.

“The university’s senior leadership concluded that to maintain the integrity of the research, as well as perceptions of integrity, the McClure Center would cover all expenses rather than seek financial support from stakeholders,” said Priscilla Salant, interim director of the U of I’s McClure Center for Public Policy Research.

Though Otter had solicited contributions from truckers and builders, he welcomed the decision, telling the Statesman, “On reflection, I think it was a wise decision by (Salant) to say, ‘No, we’re going to pay for it.’ Because then it’s unapproachable in its credibility, in its veracity.

“And I’ll tell you what, having gone through two bloody battles over transportation needs in Idaho in ’08 and ’09, we need all the veracity we can get,” Otter said.

Otter revealed the plans for the poll in December at a meeting of the Idaho Associated General Contractors. Otter said he sought the data to gauge public attitudes about what he says are hundreds of millions in unfunded annual infrastructure needs and how to pay for them. In 2008 and 2009, Otter failed to convince lawmakers to raise transportation taxes and fees.

He told the contractors in December he hoped to raise from stakeholders $35,000 of a projected $45,000 polling budget. The balance was to have been paid by the McClure Center.

The research was originally to have been completed in time to present to the House and Senate Transportation committees before the Legislature’s adjournment last month.

But Salant said interviews, conducted by U of I’s Social Science Research Unit in Moscow, didn’t begin until February and were completed last week. Students made most of the calls, after four hours of training and with supervisors present.

Salant said the poll will include about 1,060 likely voters and have a statewide margin of error of 3 percent. The results will be released this summer, she said, after review by a faculty member at the University of Washington’s College of Engineering.

“Our decision to engage an external reviewer is part of our commitment to conducting the highest quality research and thus to producing reliable and useful data for Idaho,” Salant said. Final costs are not yet available, but are expected to be above $40,000.

Otter discussed the poll last week during a meeting with the Statesman’s editorial board, which includes former McClure Center Director Marty Peterson. Peterson agreed with Otter on the credibility question, saying, “No way in the world will anybody say it’s tainted by the people who underwrote the cost.”

A task force convened by Otter reported in 2010 that state and local highway funding fell $262 million short of meeting annual operation, preservation and restoration needs. Annual capacity and safety enhancement needs were underfunded by $281 million annually, according to the task force.

But Peterson warned “there’s no guarantee” the poll will support Otter’s call for major increases in spending.

“No,” agreed Otter, “but it’s going to tell us whether people believe that we’ve got a deteriorating infrastructure, No. 1. And No. 2, where do you get the money? Do they believe it’s going to cost $280 million — if that’s what it’s going to take — where do you get the money? How do you equitably go after fair treatment by all users?”

Peterson began to describe a question in the survey about using a miles-traveled means of assessing road taxes to account for the switch to electric and hybrid vehicles.

But Otter theatrically put his hands over his ears, saying, “Nah, nah, nah! I’m not going to listen! They asked me did I want to see the questions and I said no. That’s what my grandmother used to do when my grandfather started cussin’. She didn’t want to hear.”

Otter said he didn’t want any talk that he’d influenced the poll, other than to suggest it be conducted. “I think it’s gonna be good, I think it’s gonna be fair.”

Dan Popkey came to Idaho in 1984 to work as a police reporter. Since 1987, he has covered politics and has reported on 25 sessions of the Legislature. Dan has a bachelor's in political science from Santa Clara University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University. He was a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association and a Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. A former page in the U.S. House of Representatives, he graduated Capitol Page High School in 1976. In 2007, he led the Statesman’s coverage of the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news. In 2003, he won the Ted M. Natt First Amendment award from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association for coverage of University Place, the University of Idaho’s troubled real estate development in Boise. Dan helped start the community reading project "Big Read." He has two children in college and lives on the Boise Bench with an old gray cat.

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