Given how far left-of-center Gov. Butch Otter has drifted for his last legislative session, the Idaho Freedom Foundation wanted to find out what the candidates for governor thought of the retiring office holder’s recent budget-bloating proposals.

Lt. Gov. Brad Little said, “I appreciate that [Otter’s] budget continues fulfilling the commitment on education and fully implementing [Otter’s education task force’s] recommendations, particularly ensuring we can attract and retain the best educators across Idaho.”

Little said he breaks with the governor on tax relief. “If this had been my budget, I would have prioritized tax relief beyond what is being pursued right now, including cutting the grocery tax once and for all.” Otter doesn’t want to eliminate the grocery tax. The three major Republican candidates running to replace Otter—Little, U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, and businessman Tommy Ahlquist say they’ll get rid of the sales tax on groceries.

Ahlquist breaks with Otter on budget bloat, contending the three-term governor’s spending blueprint is a clue that the state needs a political outsider and a closer containment of spending.

Ahlquist noted, “Unfortunately, the State of the State and [Otter’s] budget proposal demonstrates an unwillingness to challenge the status quo. We need to go through our budget line item by line item and cut wasteful government spending.” Ahlquist reiterated his pledge to find $100 million in cuts during his first 100 days in office. That said, in the last week, Ahlquist has taken a hit for clarifying that his cuts may not result in actual budget reductions, but might simply be a shift in spending priorities.

Ahlquist also said he wants to impose real spending limitations “to ensure that spending doesn’t outpace economic growth, which despite denial from our politicians, has been happening.” He added, he would have argued for “comprehensive tax reform that lowers taxes for the small businesses and families of Idaho and provides a more fair, flat, and simple tax structure.”

Labrador didn’t directly comment on Otter’s speech or legislative priorities. Rather, through spokesman China Veldhouse Gum, Labrador tried to outline a different path: “With great respect for Gov. Otter for his over 30 years of service to Idahoans, I want to ask some questions: What if Idaho had the lowest taxes and the fewest regulations of any state in the nation? What if Idaho had the best schools and the best healthcare system? What if Idaho really got government out of the way for countless families and businesses struggling to survive under a sea of bureaucracy and red tape?”

Veldhouse Gum said, Idahoans should “imagine opportunity unleashed, a Statehouse where conservative ideas are allowed to flow and thrive … I can promise you that Governor Raúl Labrador’s 2019 state of the state speech will lay out a plan to solve real problems impacting real people.”

Little advocates what he sees to be the positives in Idaho’s overall approach during the Otter years: “Idaho’s general fund budget is always tight and the Legislature closely follows its constitutional obligation to keep it balanced every year.”

This underlies a big difference of opinion on the health and direction of state government. Little suggests, apart from style and priority differences, he’s fairly close to Otter on spending and budget priorities. His challengers Ahlquist and Labrador say the state could make different choices.

IFF asked the two Democrats who have announced gubernatorial bids to respond to the governor’s address but received no response.

Last year’s budget surplus was about $200 million, a big number that should have generated tax relief but didn’t. That money was all spent by government. This year’s surplus is north of $300 million.

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