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Otter's hit list

The guv's top priorities in chartreuse

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Along with the little 2010 budget book CD-ROMs foisted on fresh-faced Capitol correspondents this week was a one-page chart with six sections colored in lovely pastels.

The chart, based on the taxpayer moneys that a smattering of state agencies had on an arbitrary day in December, shows Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter's priorities for state government in a subtle rainbow of peach, periwinkle and chartreuse.

At the top of the list—the peach section where Otter is not suggesting any reductions in base budgets—are the legislative and judicial branches, coffers in which Otter is not supposed to meddle.

There are two interesting peach entries: The state's catastrophic health care fund—which is regularly drained to help out poor people who find themselves in emergency rooms—will maintain, though Otter is recommending that counties pick up $5,000 more of each tab. And his Office of Energy Resources will have to rely solely on federal grants and dedicated funding; the 2009 budget holdbacks wiped out all of its meager state general funding.

As you run your finger down the list, base budget reductions go from 0 percent to 6 percent. In the sherbet, at 2 percent cuts, are Health and Welfare (which serves the autistic boy Spencer: the "face to the cuts" that Otter keeps talking about), juvenile corrections and the State Board of Tax Appeals (which helps people get out of paying their taxes). In the blues, at 3 percent: ag research, fellow constitutional officers like the attorney general and colleges and universities.

These are things that Otter feels are essential functions of government: "The necessary and proper role of taxpayer-funded government services," as he put it in his State of the State speech.

Inching over the rainbow, however, we get into the less necessary, "nice" government programs.

In the chartreuse, reaching up to the 4 percent cut level are commerce, police, public television.

And the lilac zone, from 5 to 6 percent cuts, are most of the commissions—blind, arts, libraries—as well as the departments of agriculture, public schools and environmental quality.

Missing from the list completely: Idaho Department of Transportation. That's because IDT does not get general fund money, but it's also because it would require an entirely new color scheme to indicate something less than zero.

"Apart from the transportation initiative, there is no tax increase in the governor's budget," Otter budget director Wayne Hammon told reporters prior to the public release of the budget.

This throws highways maintenance way to the top of Otter's necessary and proper list; he is asking for another dime of gas tax phased in over five years, an increase in vehicle registration fees, a rental car tax and elimination of the ethanol exemption, which expires in 2011 anyway.

Meanwhile, public schools face a 5 percent cut. Mental health treatment, water quality testing and arts grants go by the wayside while Hammon gets new phones, the Department of Commerce gets money to attract new companies to Idaho and $253.4 million sits in the state's rainy day funds.

This last point created one of the most dramatic moments in Idaho political theater in years, if you don't count the Larry Craig affair.

After his State of the State speech, Otter held a press conference in the lobby of the Boise State Special Events Center. Asked to respond to the accusation that he was funding "potholes over people," Otter yielded to Caldwell Republican Sen. John McGee, who asserted that patching potholes equates to jobs for Idahoans.

Then, Pocatello attorney and Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti stepped to Otter's podium and declared: "This is not a time to raise taxes in Idaho." Including gas taxes.

Otter confronted Ruchti after the show, still surrounded by cameras, and asked what his solution is. It involves the millions of dollars in reserve. Ruchti told Unda' the Rotunda that he'd look first at the budget stabilization funds before slashing agency budgets like Otter is proposing.

While Otter is dipping into the rainy day funds to the tune of about 35 percent, Ruchti suggests something more like 50 percent.

There is, of course, another solution.

Otter has said that he does not want to raise other taxes—income tax or corporate tax—because folks are barely making ends meet. Because a tax hike is a pay cut.

"I think you create a lot more casualties when you raise taxes," Otter said.

At least three well-off officials—Otter, along with schools chief Tom Luna and the former lieutenant governor—didn't want their 3 percent pay raises this year. Otter promised to donate his raise—about $3,000—to a state scholarship fund.

So it appears that Otter is not one paycheck away from Medicaid, and perhaps some of his peers in the $100,000-a-year club are not pinching pennies yet either. They could just as easily keep their raises and raise their income taxes.

Or they could just hang up a poster at the Arid Club soliciting more donations. Otter Communications Director Mark Warbis, after rejecting a $1 copy donation from Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey, assured us that anyone can donate to the state.

"If you want to pay more taxes, you're always welcome," Warbis said.

See pinkish budget docs and take up a collection at citydesk.boiseweekly.com.