EXCLUSIVE: Gov. Otter reflects on first legislative session

Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Governor Butch Otter pictured making final travel plans to visit the Cuban Ambassador to the United Nations.

Overall, Gov. Butch Otter was pleased with his first legislative session since taking office in January.

He didn't get everything he wanted, but he got a lot of his programs approved, and he made a clear statement to the legislature about his strong belief in the basic Constitutional principles that have been at the core of his political life for the last four decades.

In a wide-ranging exclusive interview provided to the Mountain Home News, Otter discussed those principles, his successes and failures during the session, and offered praise to state Representative Pete Nielsen of Mountain Home for his efforts in helping Otter try to modify the Bowling Alley Smoking Ban bill.

Those efforts ultimately were unsuccessful. Otter vetoed the bill (one of six vetoes he issued this session), and the legislature, for only the fourth time in the last 35 years, overrode the veto.

But Nielsen, he said, "worked hard" to get the bill modified.

"Last year, when this bill first came up, and didn't pass, a lot of bowling alley owners went out of their way to install special air systems, put in doors and special rooms for smokers, and made other modifications" to respond to the concerns expressed by the legislature. "They spent a lot of money. I thought at a minimum they should be able to recover those costs, off their taxes and accelerated depreciation rates.

"I thought it constituted a taking of property. Basically, we rendered those (improvements) useless.

"Pete worked very hard to talk some sense into them (the bill's supporters), and provide just compensation.

"When they wouldn't bring me (those provisions in the bill), I vetoed it."

But Otter wasn't overly upset when the legislature overrode his veto, one of the defining actions of this year's legislature.

"It was a validation that the republic is alive and well in Idaho," he said. "The key is the separate but equal doctrine. The override is an accomplishment of that doctrine.

"Wasn't it a wise and peaceful choice of the founding fathers to say this is the way we'll deal with a problem?"

Otter has always been pure to his strict constructionist principles of the Constitution. He has always advocated smaller, more efficient governments, retention of as much authority as possible at the local level, and fiscal responsibility.

His concern for fiscal responsibility led him to enact a line-item veto of the proposal for Raging River State Park. "We're already $20 million in the hole on maintaining what parks we do have," he said. "I want to fix up what we've got before we get more. We've had a tendency in the past to buy the land and then neglect it."

It also was one of the factors that led to his confrontation with the legislature over the Capitol Improvements Project. Originally, he wanted to use existing buildings adjacent to the capitol to provide the extra office space the legislature wanted, rather than a massive underground office complex. He couldn't convince the legislature to adopt his plan, but did manage to get the original legislative plan scaled back somewhat, saving several tens of millions of tax dollars in the process.

In fact, it was that battle, early in the session, that seemed to drive home to both legislators and the media, that he was serious about the kind of proposals he'd made in his campaign.

"I think it's an indictment of the process that a person will say one thing on the campaign trail, and another when they're behind this desk," he said. Early in the session, he recalled, he had held a roundtable with some of the key publishers in the state. Many of them, he said, seemed surprised that he was actually working to carry out promises and programs they had considered just campaign rhetoric.

"I think there were times in previous administrations that things were said in the campaigns that didn't make the 'threshold test' later on. They were forgotten about." But the media and legislature, he said, learned that "when I say something, I'm serious about it. When I say I'm going to do something, I'm going to try as hard as I can to make sure it gets done."

But in the world of politics, compromise is often necessary.

Otter was pleased, for example, with the overall education package approved by the legislature. He noted that in a rare occurrence, he and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna had only been a few million dollars apart in their separate proposals. And they got most of what they wanted.

But not everything. For example, Otter had asked for $20 million to fund his "Opportunity Scholarship" program, designed to help Idaho students from poor families attend Idaho colleges.

They gave him $2 million to start the program, and $10 million to place in an endowment fund. "We worked out a gentleman's agreement, based on the good will of myself and the legislature," Otter said, to provide additional money in the future.

He said the handshake deal would put an additional $10-$20 million into the endowment next year, and for several years after that. "Eventually, I'd like to get to $100 million. That way, even with the most conservative investments, we could be generating five or six million dollars for needs-based scholarships each year.

"I'll hold them to that deal, and I believe they will."

Otter's energetic, "handshake deal" style of government where "a man's word is his bond" is rooted deeply in the western tradition and culture that marks his office, from the huge photos of ranching and rodeo scenes shot by Jerry Kennecke of Mountain Home, to the glass cowboy hat on his table filled with jelly beans.

And as he's remade the governor's office into his own image, he's trying to remake the state government as well.

Every department head has been asked to not only submit a budget, but a justification for every line item in it. And he's working to get them to cooperate and learn about each other's needs and problems "so we don't have to re-invent the wheel" every time a problem comes up.

"We had one case," he said, "where three different departments had a similar problem, and each one of them went out and hired a different consultant to help them solve that problem. We could have saved a lot of money by hiring one consultant to work for all three of them."

In the future, he plans on having his cabinet meetings at the offices of each cabinet department head. "We'll get a chance to tour their facilities, meet the people who work there, and get a better feel for each other's needs, problems and capabilities. The better we can coordinate things and understand each other, the more efficient we can be."

The "Cowboy Governor" plans on riding herd on state government to make it as efficient and cost effective as possible.

And he believes in bringing government to the people. Otter launched a "Capital for a Day" program shortly after taking office. He and key cabinet department heads go out to small towns in Idaho to listen to the voters.

"We try and contact local elected leaders, mayors and county commissioners, and find out what the issues are in that area, then we take the department heads most directly involved in those issues with us."

He's spent the day in Bonners Ferry, where no one could remember the last time a governor visited, and other small towns like Kimberly.

"We go out, and we put our ears on. We have people coming in all day discussing issues, problems they want us to resolve, ideas they have.

"I want my agency heads, the policy makers to be able to sit down face to face with our 'customers,' and say 'this is what we're going to do to solve your problem'. Then that becomes our action plan when we get back to the office."

It's easy for top officials to get isolated from the day-to-day concerns of the citizens, Otter noted, and Capital for a Day helps solve that problem.

Otter said that "after the State of the State" address that opened his first legislative session "every day has been a highlight. I keep saying to myself, 'how much better does it get than this.' I mean, how many people get to go before the legislation and present a plan" for how the state will operate.

"And then I look back 83 days later, and say, 'we didn't do too bad.' We came up short on some things, but I'm optimistic.

"We're already starting to prepare for the next legislative session. Some of the things we didn't get this year, we need to put together better arguments."

And, Otter said, over the next few months, "you'll see some reorganization and new directives in state government, so that our ability to serve the people, and be servants of the people, is better in '08 than it was in '07."

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