If you’re wondering whether Republican Gov. Butch Otter’s legislative and budget blueprint for 2015 favors big government or small, simply look for clues in the reaction of lawmakers. Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, among the Statehouse’s most liberal members, told reporters he liked what he heard. Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, one of the Legislature’s most conservative, didn’t.
“It didn’t seem like, to me, to be a very conservative message,” Vick told the Spokesman-Review newspaper. “Big increases in spending and very, very small tax cuts. I do like the fact that he would like to reduce our income tax rates, but we’re still going to be uncompetitive with our neighboring states.”
Indeed, Otter proposes cutting the top marginal income tax bracket, now at 7.4 percent and among the highest in the West, to 7.3 percent. Otter’s on a quest to lower the rate to 6.9 percent, an achievement we’ll reach in four years at this pace, and our taxes will still be uncompetitive. To match Utah’s top income tax will take Idaho another two decades.
The reason he can’t cut taxes faster is because Otter’s budget proposes a 6.5 percent increase in spending (adjusted for the accounting gimmicks that have become commonplace for the administration). Otter proposes spending $3.12 billion, an increase of $190 million. Much of that money has been targeted for public schools under an education reform plan that is guaranteed to deliver a more expensive education but little else. That’s on top of last year’s massive spending increase.
Otter also teed up tax increases for this Legislature; he told lawmakers he likes the idea of taxing the Internet and supports raising revenue for roads, though on the latter he didn’t specify how. The only thing he did specify in regard to highway and bridge construction and repair is that he doesn’t want to use general fund dollars to pay for it, objecting to the idea that highway funds would compete with schools and public safety and the like. It’s an interesting posture for Otter, because last year, the governor signed a bill that allocated general funds (in form of cigarette tax money) to roads.
On Medicaid expansion, Otter was coy. He told reporters Monday that he wants lawmakers to hold hearings. Asked if he’d sign a bill to expand federal government-delivered health care, Otter equivocated, leaving the door open enough that now legislators are preparing hearings on whether to implement another prong of Obamacare.
This was Otter’s ninth State of the State address. He’s likely not going to run for governor again. Idahoans support—emphatically support—limited government, very low taxes and an economy unfettered by government regulation. He had nothing to lose by embracing those values and charting that course for the Legislature. He would have been a hero. He might have begun rebuilding his now-tarnished reputation as a libertarian. It’s quite evident that’s not his objective. He’s given that up. That’s too bad for him, but also too bad for our state.
If it sounds like I find Otter’s proposal for the Legislature somewhat lacking, you’re reading incorrectly. I find Otter’s proposal extremely disheartening and overwhelmingly statist.