Otter reflects on tenure in final State of the State

Otto Kitsinger/AP photo Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter delivers his final State of the State address inside the House chambers at the state Capitol building in Boise on Monday.

Otto Kitsinger/AP photo
Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter delivers his final State of the State address inside the House chambers at the state Capitol building in Boise on Monday.

By KIMBERLEE KRUESI, Associated Press

BOISE — Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter on Monday promised he was leaving Idaho in a better place than when he found it nearly 12 years ago, ticking off a long list of challenges he’s had to overcome as head of state that included natural disasters, political division and economic recession.

The Republican governor struck a reflective tone during his 12th and final State of the State address to lawmakers. Known as the official kickoff to the legislative session, the 55-minute speech — his longest ever during his annual address to lawmaker — focused on the hard lessons he’s learned throughout the three terms in Idaho’s highest elected position.

“With the benefit of experience earned through the patience and confidence of Idaho voters, today I have a more nuanced view of the proper role of government,” Otter said. “I have always understood its limitations and its flaws. But now I also know its possibilities, when responsibly led, for helping individual citizens realize their full potential. None of us can afford to dismiss the latter because we are hamstrung by the former.”

Otter pointed to his dedication to improving Idaho education, replenishing the state’s reserves and attracting job growth as some of his top achievements.

Come December, Otter will end more than four decades of being an elected official. Noting the looming change, Otter’s budget even includes a line item for $15,000 to help cover governor-elect transition costs.

Yet, despite his term approaching an end, Otter still laid out a long list of goals for the upcoming 2018 session.

Overall, the governor is proposing a 6.62 percent increase from last year’s budget. This would bring the state budget to $3.66 billion in fiscal year 2019, which starts in July and goes until the end of June 2019.

As constitutionally required, the majority of the budget proposed by Otter would be spent on education. This includes increasing public schools funding by 6.03 percent, or by $123 million. This includes $42 million more to help boost teacher’s salaries.

As were his priorities during his first State of the State address in 2007, tax cuts and education highlighted the majority of Otter’s agenda for the upcoming legislative session. Otter proposed a $200 million tax cut package that includes reducing the state’s income and corporate tax rate, as well as adding an $85 child tax credit.

The announcement comes at a time when tax officials are warning lawmakers that Idaho taxpayers could end up paying roughly $100 million more next year as a result of the Republican tax overhaul that President Donald Trump signed into law last month.

Separately, Otter is once again pushing lawmakers to reduce a key component in how Idaho calculates the unemployment insurance tax rate because the trust fund Idaho uses to pay unemployment benefits has more money than it needs to survive an economic crisis. Lawmakers failed to take up the governor’s request last year.

“We must never forget that it’s the people’s money. So I will gladly join you in reducing individual and corporate income tax rates with an eye toward stimulating more economic growth,” Otter said. “But that must be accomplished while keeping our fiscal house in order and our investments for the future on track.”

Otter is also asking lawmakers to create a chief education officer who would help make key changes inside Idaho’s postsecondary system.

The idea stems from various recommendations submitted by a task force appointed by the governor to review the state’s postsecondary access and completion. The proposal has also been endorsed by a handful of business executives, who sent a letter to Otter urging him to adopt the idea because of the growing need to have a better skilled workforce in Idaho.

According to Otter’s budget, the CEO will have a $200,000 annual salary, as well as an additional $500,000 in one-time consulting costs.

Included in Otter’s speech was support for a new proposal for Idaho to apply for two federal waivers that would change how the state’s working poor can qualify for health insurance subsidies or Medicaid. Doing so would provide medical coverage to an estimated 38,000 Idahoans and slash premiums by up to 20 percent.

“So in my last legislative session as your governor, I am making one final attempt. No longer should this body use my agreement not to act alone on Obamacare issues as a way to stop progress that will benefit Idaho citizens,” Otter said, chiding lawmakers for refusing to find a solution to Idahoans who don’t qualify for health care. “We can no longer wait on Congress. This issue is too pressing.”

State lawmakers will now spend the next few months in Boise working to balance the state budget and pass legislation.