One week in to Idaho’s 2015 legislative session and Gov. Butch Otter’s agenda is clear: more spending, more tax cuts, more handouts to businesses and higher taxes on families.
Conservatives are less than thrilled with the governor’s budget, which adds 6.5 percent in new spending next year, puts some money in the rainy-day fund and cuts $17 million in taxes for top brackets.
Democrats aren’t entirely happy with the governor’s plans, but have generally applauded the cash infusion for education.
Limited-government advocates and free market believers aren’t impressed at all.
Peter Crabb, an economics professor at Nampa’s Northwest Nazarene University, slammed the governor for throwing more money at education without examine data on spending.
“The governor proposes a 7.4 percent increase in education funding, but provides no evidence that more spending will improve outcomes,” Crabb wrote. ”In fact, Idaho students do better in reading and math than other states with much higher spending.”
The governor’s budget includes more than $100 million in new money for education.
Crabb also knocked Otter for his praise of the Tax Reimbursement Incentive program, which hands out tax breaks to big companies that relocate their businesses in the state. The program can give companies a break on payroll, sales and income taxes, in exchange for the jobs.
“He may be correct that the program is ‘attracting great interest’, but why wouldn’t businesses say they are interested in tax incentives,” Crabb said. “The governor did not provide any evidence that benefits of these programs in any way exceed their cost.”
Another critic, Boise State University political science professor Scott Yenor, said Otter lacked any sort of good government stance.
“I see no change in the way these functions are being carried out,” Yenor said. “I don’t see him (Otter) as a reformer. He’s no Chris Christie. He’s No Scott Walker. He’s no Mitch Daniels.”
Yenor, who, like Crabb, sits on the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s Board of Scholars, said Otter maintains the status quo, only adding dollars to government programs.
“There’s no reforming of the way government is doing these things,” Yenor said.
He also criticized the governor for giving in to the allure of federal dollars that come with Medicaid expansion. “That always comes with great strings,” Yenor warned. “You don’t know the size of the strings and they become ropes.”
Otter didn’t endorse Medicaid expansion, an option under Obamacare, in his State of the State address last week, but he didn’t close the door on it, either.
Boise realtor and tea party activist Chad Inman told IdahoReporter.com he’s disappointed Otter didn’t move the ball forward on Idaho capturing some of its land back from the federal government. Inman says he’s not entirely bothered by new funding for schools, but wishes the money would’ve derived from greater use of the state’s natural resources.
“I’d really like to see him advocate opening up federal lands to pay for those schools,” Inman said. “That’s our funding source. That should be our funding source, and he’s left that out of the loop.”
Of course, not everyone is down on Otter for his wish list. Some praise came from a surprising source last week.
"We're pleased that Gov. Otter outlined many priorities in his address that Idaho Democrats have championed for years," House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said in his response to the State of the State. "We appreciate the governor beginning to see the wisdom in our approach."
Idaho Freedom Foundation President Wayne Hoffman said Democrats’ praise for Otter’s priorities reveals a terrible agenda.
“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,” Hoffman wrote last week. “Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, among the Statehouse’s most liberal members, told reporters he liked what he heard.”
One legislative veteran, though, said the governor laid out a fair and compromising plan for 2015.
“I think the governor is a little wise to come a little under the revenue budget,” said Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls.
Otter’s budget stashes $33 million for savings, and leaves more than $30 million unspent.
“That’s what the state ought to do,” Hartgen said. “They ought to spend less than they are taking in.”
In the coming weeks, lawmakers will slice, manipulate and massage their way through the numbers, seeking to set their own budget and priorities. Hartgen says Otter set the tone for a session by writing a budget that bolsters several important functions of government.
“I think the governor’s striking a really good balance here,” he said.
Note: The Idaho Freedom Foundation publishes IdahoReporter.com.