Butch Otter's budgeting - Version 2.0

Kevin Richert
February 18, 2010
Idaho Statesman

For five weeks, Butch Otter has allowed you to believe he's the guy who doesn't care about whether small-town kids can keep watching Big Bird.

The guy who wants to zero out a human rights commission - in a state still too often and unfairly associated with the actions of a few white supremacist kooks.

And the guy who doesn't want to put a nickel of taxpayer dollars into the parks where Idahoans recharge their batteries, revisit their state's history or reconnect as families.

If our governor is to be believed now, well, he was just bluffing. He was frustrated after waiting for months for agencies to come up with long-range business plans.

That four-year general fund budget phaseout? My 2-year-old niece has a favorite word for this kind of thing: psych!

I'm skeptical, because this all sounds revisionist.

On Jan. 11, Otter unveiled his controversial 2010-11 budget. He said he hoped to wean several small (but politically sensitive) agencies from the state's general fund. Targets included Idaho Public Television, the Human Rights Commission and the Parks and Recreation Department.

The reaction was predictably volcanic, and Otter and the agency heads have come up with makeovers to save Parks and Recreation and the Human Rights Commission. Otter has quietly played the bad cop role - until Tuesday, when Senate President Pro Tem Robert Geddes, R-Soda Springs, gave reporters a glimpse behind the curtain. Otter targeted only the agencies who chose to "thumb their nose" at Otter's requests for a business plan.

That's pretty much the case, Otter told the Statesman's editorial board Wednesday. "I said, 'Well, all right, I'll give you a business plan. In four years, you're out of the general fund.'"

I strongly urge you to spend 17 minutes listening to the audio (at IdahoStatesman.com) and arrive at your own conclusions. Here's why I'm skeptical:

- First, you have to buy the idea that, in an election year, Otter was willing to take a P.R. pounding just to send a message to truant state agencies.

- Second, you'd have to believe Otter had run out of patience with state agency heads - but wasn't angry enough to call them out publicly. I think Otter has every right to expect state agency heads to listen to him and to hold them accountable; I'd be more sympathetic if he had done that from the start. On Wednesday, Otter said he could have approached things better: "I offer my mea culpas for the way I handled it."

- Third, you have to buy the idea that Otter lost control of the message. He blamed, albeit not by name, Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Russell Fulcher, R-Meridian, who leaked details about the potential cuts in December. OK, but Otter budget chief Wayne Hammon announced the four-year phaseout plan to a room full of reporters on Jan. 11, and handed out a spreadsheet to match.

No gray area there. And no one in state government has a bigger podium than the governor to clearly explain his intentions.

Otter now says he'd like to get these agencies as close to self-funding as possible, but he says he wasn't serious about zeroing them out. "I wanted the (agency heads) to think that. How else am I going to get them to respond?"

Otter got his response - from Idahoans who love parks or public TV, or Idahoans who depend on agencies that advocate for Hispanics, the hard of hearing or the developmentally disabled. They took his budget seriously, because they weren't in on the ruse.

I hope Otter is just engaged in damage control and revisionism. That isn't as diabolical as the alternative: the idea that Otter was willing to stir up thousands of Idahoans, just to indulge in a game of chicken.

Listen to audio from Gov. Otter's editorial board meeting (MP3).

Originally posted at http://www.idahostatesman.com/opinion/story/1084789.html

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