by Deanna Darr
Money was on the mind of Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter today—specifically how to get more money for the state and what to do with the revenues already in state coffers.
Otter addressed the media during this morning's annual breakfast meeting with the Idaho Press Club and, as might be expected, education reform, personal property taxes and health care reform were on the menu.
Even before the 2013 legislative session started, one of the hot-button topics was the possible repeal of the personal property tax, paid by businesses for their physical equipment and fixtures. While it's not a popular tax among the business community, it means major revenues for counties—particularly for rural counties—who worry about funds to replace that money.
Otter remains committed to the idea, saying he still sees four or five different paths the state could take to replace those revenues while still getting rid of the tax. He repeatedly pointed to Sen. Marv Hagedorn's early plan that had built in economic triggers for phasing out the tax. Otter also brought up the controversial local option tax—something Boise leaders have pushed for years to get, but to which the Legislature has been unresponsive.
"It won't fit all communities," Otter cautioned of the local option tax, adding that he has not heard of any efforts to introduce a local option bill this session.
Another of Otter's more controversial moves, a state health insurance exchange, cleared a major hurdle Feb. 7, when the Senate Commerce and Human Resources Committee voted 8-1 to move the measure to the Senate floor with a positive recommendation. It's a vote Otter said he is grateful for.
"[I need to] do everything I can to protect the state," he said, reiterating his long-standing opposition to the federal health care mandate.
Still, he said working to find ways Idaho can take more control of the program is the best option. He pointed to negotiations over wolves and roadless issues as examples of how the state can find stronger ground.
"We had some successes because we stayed at the table," he said. "The federal exchange is the worst we're going to have."
When asked about the possible expansion of Medicaid, Otter said his focus remains on identifying what's wrong with the system before allocating more funds. He added that although he is eligible for Medicare, he is not participating in the plan—yet.
"Once you're in the system, it's like a tattoo," he said. "You can't get rid of it, you can't get out of it."
Otter also commented on a recent vote by the Senate Resources and Environment Committee rejecting Otter's choice to fill a vacancy on the Idaho Fish and Game Commission, Joan Hurlock, but he refused to speculate on why the vote came down as it did.
"They've got their own reasons," he said of the committee members, before adding that the choice of Hurlock was a "no-brainer" for him.
Otter also said the day is quickly approaching when the state is going to have to figure out how to repair its aging transportation infrastructure.
"We've leaned it out as much as we can," Otter said of efforts to find cost savings across the Idaho Transportation Department budget. "Infrastructure is part of our economy."
And while he said it's important to try to maintain infrastructure, he wouldn't support moving tax revenue to fund road projects. Instead, he feels targeted fees and taxes are the way to go.
"People doing the using ought to be doing the paying," he said.
Education reform has been a polarizing issue since the introduction of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna's Students Come First reform legislation—which was ultimately rejected by voters. Still, Otter is not ready to dismiss individual aspects of the three reform propositions, saying he believes all parties can find some consensus on some items, pointing specifically to open contract negotiations as an example.
He called the defeat of the propositions as a "failure of process," not necessarily a rejection of everything in the propositions, adding that the new education reform task force is now meeting that obligation of process.
Otter's future in public office was also questioned, especially after Republican Rep. Raul Labrador publicly stated that he would consider a run for governor. Considering Labrador has made a point of contradicting Otter whenever possible, Otter was asked if he looked forward to a direct battle with Labrador.
"I don't hope anyone but me runs for governor," Otter said with a chuckle.