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Unda' The Rotunda

Veto This: No computers for you, bad legislators, but have some more methadone


Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter says he struck out lines authorizing funding for community-based drug-treatment programs from two bills because the efficacy of the programs could not be proved.

And because the money has not been spent properly. And because the Feds left us hanging. And because there is other money for other types of drug treatment.

Sometimes legislators get handed individual copies of these veto messages. But most of the time, they read them online, often on the Spokesman Review's "Eye On Boise" blog.

It saves them a four-minute walk down the block to the governor's office.

Any Idahoan can read Otter's veto messages—line-item or otherwise—on his Web site or on the Legislative Web site. They can be fun to read.

Most lawmakers take the vetoes at face value. Or say they take them at face value.

"He has a veto message," House Minority Leader Mike Moyle, a Republican from Star, advises. "Read it."

But with any veto, there is more than meets the eye.

Otter writes in both drug-treatment veto messages, one to the House and the other to the Senate: "There also should be no question that I support providing adequate public resources for treatment. However, the item vetoed in this bill goes far beyond the scope of what state policy makers had in mind when our treatment program was created or what Idaho taxpayers should be expected to accept."

But if you ask Otter's office for more, they'll tell you addicts are not budgetary priority numero uno in the now scaled-back '09 budget.

"The bottom line: Everybody is taking a hit," Otter spokesman Jon Hanian said.

The reasons for a veto are many.

Otter's people say he tells it like it is. In the words of communications director Mark Warbis: "The reasons given in those veto letters are the precise reasons ..."

But the real reason for a veto often remains elusive to all but a select group. Sometimes not even the folks targeted by a veto will know about it. Sometimes people think they are targeted but never know for sure. And as far as history is concerned, the petty politics behind a veto are often quickly forgotten.

The Senate looked at Otter's drug-treatment veto message and came together with a gleam in its collective eye. Senator after senator stood up to recount in dramatic senatorial debate how they know people on drugs and they have come to understand the role of drug treatment in those people's lives.

Rexburg Republican Sen. Brent Hill's niece was saved from meth use.

"The physical effects of addiction have not magically gone away, but there's a light back in her eyes," Hill said, according to press accounts. "I will always be grateful to the people of Idaho for saving Melissa (not her real name)."

Sen. Lee Heinrich, a Republican from Cascade, spoke of his own son's problems with drugs (but ended up agreeing with the governor's logic and upholding the veto).

Then, 30 senators voted to override.

At the same time, the House continued discussing the drug issue with the governor's staff and late Thursday night, apparently reached a compromise that saves the bulk of the funding.

Otter's staff say the Senate was aware that the governor was willing to compromise.

"The House leadership really stepped up to the plate," Otter told the Associated Press on Friday morning.

Hanian called Friday a "good day," after the House dropped the Senate's veto-override play and called a weekend truce.

"We've been trying to figure out what they're thinking and what's in their heads for a couple of months," Hanian said.

Of course, legislators feel the same way about the governor.

Soon after the Senate overrode Otter's drug-treatment veto, the governor returned another veto message to the speaker of the House axing their new laptops for next year.

As Hanian puts it, "Sometimes you've got to get their attention."

The move may have gotten lawmakers' attention and pissed off a few people to boot.

House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet saw Otter at a function soon after the veto, and she ribbed him for cutting their computer budget.

According to Jaquet, a Ketchum Democrat, Otter responded with a deep belly laugh—not an evil one, necessarily, more of a victorious guffaw, which she mimicked for a group of reporters.

But even the speaker of the House was not sure precisely what this obviously political veto meant.

"His perception is the Legislature cut something out of his budget so he cut something out of ours," said House Speaker Lawerence Denney, a Midvale Republican. "I don't remember what we did to his budget."

So the old veto as hammer trick was not totally effective. Was it budgets, drugs, transportation funds, ideology or all of the above?

While Otter is widely viewed as being aggressive with his vetoes, the gubernatorial-veto temper tantrum has a storied place in state history.

Former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, angered over legislative stalling on his huge plan to issue bonds for road construction, vetoed eight bills in one day during the 2005 session—the eight bills that had the misfortune of being on his desk at the time.

It worked. More of the same was grudgingly approved by legislators this year.

Former Gov. Cecil Andrus, to the recollection of one former lobbyist, vetoed a widely supported telephone deregulation bill in 1987 because he was mad at a few lawmakers. However, another lobbyist recalled the reasoning as an uncomfortable business relationship between Andrus and the phone companies.

In his veto message, Andrus stated: "There is perhaps no implement of modern society more widely used or vitally needed than the telephone."

Andrus went on to make a few arguments against the bill, a la seniors won't be able to afford phones. The veto was upheld.

In about 1980, former Gov. John Evans vetoed the entire staff appropriation for the Legislature, essentially putting all of the bill writers, legislative liaisons and secretaries out of work, according to Jeff Youtz, director of the Legislative Services Office.

Evans called the Legislature back into special session later that year for a different reason and lawmakers took the opportunity to restore funding for their staff.

But back to Otter.

If the drug-treatment vetoes were purely ideological, why didn't the governor count votes in the Senate before inviting an override? If they were political—as some lawmakers in a position to know believe—what was the precise political message?

In 30 years, when another reporter looks up the 2008 session, Otter will appear to be a fairly rational player in his veto messages. He gives good reasons in measured prose for rejecting a majority vote in both houses.

Maybe when he calls them into special session to fix the schools, roads and jails that they blew off this year, they can get their computers back.

But they'll probably just put them on a credit card and settle the tab next year.