Legislature needs to regain focus - and then go home
Statesman Editorial board
March 25, 2012
As supporters and opponents of the ultrasound abortion bill descended on the Statehouse Wednesday, Gov. Butch Otter stayed quiet. Asked whether he supported the bill, Otter declined comment.
On Thursday, as the ultrasound issue remained on hold in a House committee, Otter was a hundred miles from the Statehouse, urging Twin Falls Area Chamber of Commerce members to get behind his proposal to cut income-tax rates from corporations and high-end individual filers.
"I need some help convincing people to help me get some things through," said Otter, according to a Twin Falls Times-News story on his pitch to business leaders.
On many occasions, we've criticized Otter for seeming detached from - and, at times, even disinterested in - the legislative process. We've frequently criticized the governor for failing to answer basic policy questions - including, most recently, questions about a gender gap in state administrative salaries.
This is not one of those times.
We're never fans of the "no-comment" comment from any elected official, but let's be pragmatic. Otter has nothing to gain from stepping into the ultrasound fracas. And there is a subtle but important message in Otter's jockeying for tax relief.
The message being this: The outcome on tax relief will affect many more Idahoans than the ultrasound debate.
Income tax relief makes sense: Idaho's rates are higher than its neighbors, and reductions would help the state's corporations and small businesses. This is an imperfect bill - it provides $35.7 million in tax cuts without a method to pay for it - but it at least gets at the tax policy and job creation issues that should be the focal point of this session.
The Senate has held the House-passed income tax bill for three weeks, because senators would prefer to backfill teacher salaries. Like income tax relief, improved teacher pay is a worthwhile commitment, but it also obligates the Legislature to find a method of payment.
The tax cut-vs.-teacher pay debate is a debate about charting the future. It transcends the direct stakes for teachers, businesses and their employees. For communities looking to attract businesses, a favorable tax structure and good, well-staffed public schools are strong selling points. These objectives are now, perhaps falsely, cast against each other. We're still not convinced that the state has to choose one over the other - although Otter has made tax cuts his preference.
Even so, this isn't the kind of debate that stirs passion or protest. It is dry stuff - unlike the ultrasound issue that has effectively consumed the Statehouse for the past three weeks.
Good arguments can be made for tax relief and backfilling teacher pay. But even after this protracted Statehouse drama, we haven't heard a single compelling argument for mandating women to undergo an ultrasound before an abortion. This heavy-handed bill runs counter to Idaho's time-honored belief in limited government and personal privacy. And there's no proof that the bill will actually do what its sponsors say they want to do: reduce the rate of abortions.
The ultrasound issue came from out of nowhere. When Otter kicked off the session with his Jan. 9 State of the State address, there was some rudimentary talk of tax relief - but not a mention of ultrasounds or abortion. And while Otter's spare legislative agenda had more than its share of shortcomings, his omission of unnecessary, divisive social crusades was not among them.
This session needs to end - and the sooner the better. And this session needs to end where it began, with a focus on budgets and taxes, the uncolorful but important work of governing.
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