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Christmas in January: Some GOP sour on Otter’s $220 million spending binge

Christmas in January: Some GOP sour on Otter’s $220 million spending binge

Dustin Hurst
January 18, 2016
Dustin Hurst
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January 18, 2016

A former Idaho Press Tribune political reporter offered some witty analysis of Gov. Butch Otter’s State of the State address, delivered last week in the Idaho Capitol.

Kelcie Mosely, the former reporter, tweeted:

Feel like Otter's speech was very Oprah style this year. You get $10 million, and you get $10 million, and everybody gets a raiiiise!

House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa, offered his own metaphor.

“I thought Christmas was three weeks ago,” Crane said. “It looks like Christmas is still here in Idaho: there was a gift here and a gift here and present there and present there.”

Otter’s budget would increase state spending by a whopping 8.5 percent, well above the 4.9 percent increase in state tax-revenue his administration projects. His spending plan would give education more than $116 million in new money in 2017, including nearly $40 million for teacher pay and $30 million for school district operating costs.

The governor also wants to launch a new entitlement program, a healthcare initiative opponents have dubbed “Ottercare.” The plan would provide basic medical services to Idahoans who make too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough for insurance subsidies on the health exchange. That comes with a $30 million-a-year price tag.

Otter also wants to give state workers a 3 percent merit-based raise, which would cost more than $17 million.

In total, the governor wants to spend $3.29 billion in 2017, up from the $3.07 billion budget lawmakers approved for 2016. That’s a $220 million spending hike.

Rep. Ryan Kirby, R-New Plymouth, is also worried about the spending growth under the Otter plan.

“One of the things I campaigned on was that government should grow slower than the economy,” Kirby said last week. He and others signaled they might have been able to swallow the spending binge had the governor included a tax cut.

“[Otter] put a lot of money out there,” Kirby added.

Kirby hinted he’s not alone in his frustration. He said some of his colleagues feel similarly about the prospect of approving such a large budget hike.

“I already know some [House members] have expressed ... a little heartburn [because] it’s so much money,” Kirby said.

Count Caldwell Republican Rep. Greg Chaney among those concerned.

“There’s a loosening of the purse strings going on,” he told IdahoReporter.com. He praised Otter for working to improve education spending, but worried the governor did little or nothing to balance bigger budgets with relief for taxpayers -- especially after the Legislature handed Idahoans a $95 million gas tax and registration fee hike last year.

“It's a little daunting to be shown a big list of spending priorities after that happens,” Chaney said referring to the tax and fee increase.

He hopes the Legislature finds a middle ground.

“There's room there, I believe, to address more than one of these priorities,” Chaney said, in regard to new spending and tax relief.  

Crane worried about the electoral consequences that might sprout if legislators swallow the governor’s budget.

“How do you go back to your constituents and defend a seven percent increase in state government?” he asked. “I don’t think that’s a defensible position for a lot of members of the caucus.”

Crane characterized Otter’s budget as a starting point, or a menu of spending options for legislators.

“I think he was asking for everything out there … knowing a lot of those issues are not going to get funded,” Crane explained. He didn’t offer predictions as to which initiatives legislators would ignore or alter.

Kirby didn’t either, but did hint that Otter’s budget dreams won’t come to pass.

“I’d be surprised if he gets all of it,” Kirby said.

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