Otter budget plan gets darts from both sides

By Chuck Malloy

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s recent State of the State address to the Legislature won’t go down in history as the most dramatic in Idaho’s history, and it certainly wasn’t among the longest. But on a personal level for him, it was one of his more gratifying talks.

“This was the first time since 2008 that I didn’t come to the Legislature with a State of the State apology for what we had cut and what we couldn’t do,” he told reporters afterward.

So with the recession behind us and revenues going up, the governor is calling for a lofty 7.9 percent increase for public schools and a laundry list of spending requests — including more money for higher education, health care and public defenders. The tone of this speech was far different from the recession years.

But not everyone was satisfied. Otter drew some battle lines for those who think he’s asking for too much and others who don’t think the governor is asking for enough.

Wayne Hoffman, director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, was quick to fire off one of the early shots of criticism — offering a few talking points to his fellow conservatives.

“The governor’s budget is a tax-and-spend bonanza,” Hoffman says. “His budget should be declared dead on arrival.”

Moreover, according to Hoffman, Otter’s message contains no proposals for tax relief and no “exciting, bold, innovative and conservative policy ideas.”

Of course, conservative messages don’t often come across as “bold” or “exciting” — as Otter found out during the recession years. There’s nothing sexy about cutting the tar from education, draining reserve funds and dismantling public-service programs. But Hoffman’s comments represent the bottom line for a lot of conservatives — mainly that Otter is too liberal for their taste.

The Democrats offer criticism in the other direction, saying the governor isn’t doing enough for education. They even have come up with an insulting name for his health care plan: “Ottercare.”

Ouch!

If Democrat A.J. Balukoff had been elected governor, he’d probably be signing onto the Democrats’ agenda, which includes more money for education and increasing the minimum wage. And maybe he’d address some modest tax increases to pay for a growing education budget. Hoffman’s mind would explode.

The Democratic legislators are thin on specifics. For instance, they don’t say how much the education budget should be, how much money it would take to make higher education affordable or how they would pay for any of those things. But they d identify some of the problems they see.

“Twice in his speech … the governor proposed getting us to 2009 levels for accomplishing 2009 goals as if that were a laudable achievement,” said Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett of Ketchum. “We cannot compete in today’s economy if we are still trying to catch up to 2009. Touting modest funding increases as ‘on the right path’ is not leadership.”

The Legislature’s passive approach does nothing to slow down the wave of school supplemental levies, which amount to massive tax increases.

“True leadership would work to correct this unequal educational system in Idaho,” Stennett says.

The House assistant minority leader, Mat Erpelding of Boise, says Otter’s health care proposal (Ottercare) falls short of providing 78,000 Idahoans the medical care they need.

“In essence, the proposal provides a few doctor visits but does not support services most likely to cause severe financial hardship,” Erpelding says. “His plan omits hospital care, emergency medical transportation, cancer care, expensive prescriptions and mental health care.”

Democrats say Medicaid expansion would make more sense for Idaho; the problem, of course, is there is no sentiment for Republicans to embrace it.

Stennett and Erpelding endorse raising the minimum wage, which is another sore spot for Republicans.

“Idahoans deserve a better wage, which helps everyone reach economic stability,” says Stennett.

Erpelding is promoting a phased-in increase in the minimum wage that will get workers “to a point where an Idahoan can get off government services.” He doesn’t identify the amount, but if the minimum wage is going to amount to a “livable” wage, then $15 per hour would be about right.

The top Democrats say their priorities “are driven by what Idaho families, workers, businesses and communities need to prosper.” Democrats say that policies, such as reviewing existing tax exemptions, are part of what Idahaons want.

Stennett and Erpelding certainly have outlined a Democratic campaign platform. The question is how many run, and win, on it.

Chuck Malloy is a native Idahoan and long-time political reporter and editorial writer. He is a former political editor with the Post Register of Idaho Falls and a former editorial writer with the Idaho Statesman. He may be contacted at: ctmalloy@outlook.com