Compassion? Don't look for it here, Butch

Marty Trillhaase
March 3, 2010
Lewiston Morning Tribune

If Gov. C. L. (Butch) Otter truly wants compassion, let him seek it from family and friends.

He won't find it here.

That's no reflection on Otter.

But it's not the job of the press to give politicians a break.

Otter seems to think he's in need of one. Speaking to the Idaho Press Club last week, Otter contended some newspapers have portrayed him as relishing the role of budget cutter.

As would any responsible governor, Otter seems genuinely anguished about the losses about to be inflicted on public schools.

"This is a tough, tough position to be in," Otter said. "I have to pick and choose, and when I made choices I have to live with them. It's not fun."

The Great Recession is imposing difficult choices on most governors, Republicans and Democrats, across the country. The same goes for private enterprise.

Otter doesn't operate in a vacuum. He does operate in a state where many if not most people dismiss the idea of raising taxes.

Idaho's constitution requires a balanced budget. But despite Otter's protestations, a pair of scissors and a meat cleaver are not the only devices in the gubernatorial tool box.

Nobody forced Otter to play lowball with the revenue forecast prepared by his own chief economist Mike Ferguson. Nobody forced Otter to disregard similar predictions offered by the State Tax Commission, the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho or economists based within the state's institutions of higher learning.

Proceeding as if the economy would remain stalled for the next 16 months - and then caving into even more dire legislative revenue predictions - means schools and other programs will face even deeper cuts.

Going after tax cheats - as the state Tax Commission proposed - is not a tax increase. It's tax equity. It's enforcing the law. For a mere $10 million to hire more auditors and collectors, the state could have reaped a $65 million profit. But Otter hasn't pursued that idea.

Otter has championed the idea of constituencies shouldering more of the burden for their favorite programs such as Idaho Public Television and the state Parks and Recreation Department. But nowhere do you see him challenging more entrenched special interests to pay more for their benefits. Why should general taxpayers support water rights administration, which serves irrigators? If industry profits from a more cooperative state administration of federal environmental standards, why is the general taxpayer forced to pay for it? Imposing user fees would free up tax dollars for the common interest.

A year ago, this governor valiantly urged lawmakers to invest in the state's highway and bridge network. Although he failed, Otter seemed close to producing a coalition of Democrats and moderates who might have helped him prevail.

Yet this year, when the issue involves the needs of schools, higher education and other programs, Otter is unwilling to make the fight for revenue. However unpopular it might be, it's hard to see how taking such a step would deny Otter his party's nomination for another term.

Otter's right. He is in a bind. But the fact is, cutting schools is not a choice that has been forced upon this governor.

It is one he has made.

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