In the second of a series of debates in Idaho’s gubernatorial campaign, the politics heat up.
Incumbent Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and Democratic hopeful cum lobbyist Keith Allred squared off at the City Club forum on Sept. 15.
While the crowd of almost 500 milled about, Allred and Otter chatted, smiling at some points and what looked like arguing at others. It didn’t last long; they saved it for the debate.
Underwritten by the Northwest Nazarene University, the debate hosted only the Republican and Democratic candidates, citing a rule that hopefuls must garner at least 15 percent in a credible, statewide poll. Other party candidates and independents showed up to listen.
Opening the debate, Otter sang the praises of his administration, citing specific examples of success in his four years at the helm of Idaho’s government.
“Four years ago I was honored and humbled to become your governor,” said Otter. “Since that time, the economic landscape, not only of Idaho, but of the nation has changed dramatically.”
Otter acknowledged that with the nationwide recession, making the right decisions for Idaho had been difficult. He told a story about a business in Twin Falls that had reconsidered moving its headquarters to other states, and cited “constitutional responsibilities” he helped inspire to uphold throughout his tenure as governor. He maintained that the next four years could be just as productive.
Allred acknowledged the troubling financial times that have plagued the state and the nation. He talked about his Idaho patronage, mentioning that he is a fifth-generation Idahoan, and talking about his work as a ranch hand on his grandfather’s ranch. But he began early with criticizing Otter’s moves during the crisis, pinning most of the blame on the governor himself, particularly the cuts to education.
“We are not providing a thorough system of public education to our kids. We are going to four-day school days. We are shrinking the total schooling time,” said Allred.
After the five-minute opening remarks by each candidate, the forum moved into audience questions.
The first question was about a series of sworn affidavits from Idaho Tax Commission members that stated Idaho’s tax collectors were losing millions from slippery scofflaws. Recent reports in the media mentioned a $205,000 tax break to a man over his private jet. Otter quickly countered that an investigation into the matter had been taken care of two years prior, citing the need for specific definitions of tax amnesty.
“Not only do that proper investigation, make those proper definitions, but make a report to the tax committees of the house and the senate for any compromise over $50,000,” said Otter. “We have done that, we are doing that … that Tax Commission and those problems were put in long before Butch Otter became governor.”
Many of the questions and issues centered around the budget, which, after revenues failed to meet projections last fiscal year, left the state shortchanged. After scraping at the bottom of every coin purse, Idaho still had to cut education spending in order to break even, a constitutional provision. Chief Financial Officer Mike Ferguson announced his retirement this year, perhaps over the budget woes.
While Otter fielded a question about when the cuts to public education would be restored, Allred suggested that Idaho could look to wiping out the tax exemptions awarded to many sectors of business. He claimed this could have kept Idaho schools whole.
“Cuts were made only after we gleaned out all other government, up to 20 percent,” said Otter. “It was painful for me to be the first governor in Idaho to have to look at cutting education.”
As for when the cuts would be restored: “That’s all going to rest on the economy,” said Otter.
Allred countered, “There were good options available this year, as there have been in the past, to keep education whole. Every governor, through good times and bad, has found a way to keep education whole.”
Allred called attention to the 29 positions left unfilled at the Tax Commission, with $100 million lost due to these vacancies, he claims. “We have let tax deadbeats stealing textbooks from Idaho students.”
One of the best questions of the forum posited the candidates: What’s something your opponent does better than you? Allred got the chance to answer first.
“Butch Otter is a good sport when he comes off his horse,” said Allred. “I just don’t come off my horse as much.” He went on to concede that Otter reaches out to people well—but suggested that he fails to deliver.
Otter countered by applauding Allred’s Harvard and
ColombiaColumbia past, but questioned a “theoretical” thinker’s ability to lead.
“Being the right kind of public servant demands that you take action,” said Otter. You don't have an hour—let alone days—to seek out ‘what should I do?’”
Overall, the debate remained civil, with both candidates mandating low taxes on Idaho families, the sovereignty of Idaho and protection of Idaho resources. The two men just had different approaches and opinions about how to get there.