Gov. Butch Otter isn’t trying to hide the underlying reason he will put off action on raising transportation funding and likely delay debate on expanding Medicaid to 100,000 Idahoans. It’s about making sure he defeats a challenge from his right in the May GOP primary by Sen. Russ Fulcher of Meridian and bests Democrat A.J. Balukoff in November.
Otter’s candor about securing a third term trumping other aspects of his agenda was clear when he fielded the first question from the audience at the Associated General Contractors winter meeting Friday, where he announced bad news on the delay of road funding.
“Good question” said Otter, channeling Johnny Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent, the all-seeing, all-knowing, sage and mystic of late-night TV fame. “What’s Idaho’s greatest challenge for 2014? Greatest challenge? Gettin’ me re-elected!”
The 71-year-old governor joined his sympathetic audience with a full belly laugh. He then added that re-electing a Legislature with a GOP supermajority and “stayin’ the course” is a corollary to extending his continuous run in high office to 32 years.
In another moment of transparency, Otter acknowledged conducting a poll rather than asking lawmakers to raise revenue is delaying a need he’s recognized since he became governor in 2007. He likened Idaho’s failure to meet road costs to the burden placed on future generations by the U.S. government’s $17 trillion debt.
“One thing you need to remember,” Otter told the contractors in his cowboy vernacular. “Idaho and Idaho politicians — including yours truly — are famous for gettin’ up and ravin’ and rantin’ about what’s going on in Washington, D.C. All they’re doin’ in is passin’ a bill forward, borrowing money from our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren and maybe even beyond in our eventual genealogy. But I would tell you this: When we defer maintenance in the state of Idaho, we’re doin’ the same thing.”
Otter cited the example of the Sand Creek Byway on U.S. 95 near Sandpoint, saying the project would have cost $14 million to build when proposed in the late 1950s but cost $112 million when completed in 2012.
Transportation funding is the biggest disappointment of Otter’s first two terms. He’s been hammering away since 2008, when he asked lawmakers to support $200 million more in annual support for state and local highways. Otter failed to convince lawmakers that year, rejecting a deal for $68 million. In 2009, his bid for $174 million fell flat, as the House rejected fuel tax increases. Otter issued a spate of vetoes but finally gave up in May, a day short of tying the record for the second-longest legislative session ever.
Facing re-election in 2010, Otter employed a different tactic to build support for raising revenue. In June 2009, he appointed a task force with a deadline in December 2010 — a month after the election. The panel took 15 months and reported that state and local highway funding was $262 million short of meeting annual operation, preservation and restoration needs and $281 million shy of capacity and safety enhancement needs. But he never followed up with a legislative proposal, in part because of a slow economic recovery and in part because of the rise of the tea party.
Otter told the contractors to expect a short 2014 session, without much controversy. Should he be re-elected, look for him to revive the transportation issue in 2015 — as long as those poll numbers look good.