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Otter's on the rebound

Dan Popkey
April 9, 2013
Idaho Statesman

Gov. Butch Otter has always been a glass-half-full guy, but his mood was positively ebullient as he said farewell to the 2013 Legislature.

"If the session had been on the stock market, I think we would have gained handsomely," Otter said Thursday.

His got 'er done list included the health exchange, personal property tax relief, an uptick in education funding, economic development, a new state water plan - 16 items in all on a genuinely robust list of accomplishments after the dreary Great Recession sessions of 2009-12.

But Otter hasn't forgotten the sting of his embarrassing defeats in 2008 and 2009, when he failed to convince fellow Republicans to invest in roads and bridges. In the waning days of the 2013 session, a package of bills to phase in a mix of higher fuel taxes, registration fees, sales tax shifts and other measures was introduced to plow the ground for 2014. After six years, the proposals would raise $237 million annually.

Asked if he would take an active role on the issue, Otter said his Transportation Department already has done so by planning for improvements and providing the information policy-makers need.

But he stopped short of saying he'll campaign for the package at the same time he seeks a third term in 2014.

"I'm not going to tell you that we're prepared to come back with a stack of bills next year," Otter said, before being halted by a sharp cough.

After clearing his throat with a drink of water, he said, "I always get choked up talking about highway funding. I've been choking since '08!"

Kidding aside, that experience influenced Otter's 2013 decision to punt on the biggest thing left undone this year: a decision on expanding Medicaid to about 100,000 low-income Idahoans. Though it would bring major property tax relief, Otter wasn't ready to take on another risky initiative.

Democrats have hammered the GOP for the delay, but in quieter moments they acknowledge Otter's caution is warranted.

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said deciding such a hot-button issue in an election year will be dicey but agrees with Otter that patient responsibility should be part of any expansion.

"There's got to be some skin in the game from the consumer," Stennett said. "That needs to be vetted and we probably couldn't have gotten it done this session."

Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, cited three factors that make waiting until 2014 prudent: the emotional toll of the exchange battle, Otter's reluctance and the vote count.

"I don't think it would have passed," Hill said. "In some ways there's as much or more resistance to that than the exchange."

Said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint: "To try to have that type of detailed discussion - either at the same time or right after the health exchange - I think it was a wise move to push it off, as disappointing as that is for many people."

Otter couldn't have gotten the health exchange without Democratic votes. So it was fitting that for the first time in his seven sessions he invited a Democrat to join the phalanx of GOP leaders standing behind him at his session-ending news conference.

Near the end, Otter asked Rusche if he'd like to add anything. Without moving to the microphone, Rusche said, "Governor, I think it was a really productive year."

"Oh, come close," exclaimed Otter. "They couldn't hear you."

Rusche repeated his praise, but added, "There are certain things that we should have done differently or could have handled better - " but Otter cut him off.

"That's enough!" joked the governor.

"I do think it was a good year," Rusche said, "and I'm looking forward to next year."

Otter said, "We left some things undone, so we can work on next year and have a reason to come back."

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

Originally posted at

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