The untold and certainly most important story from the 2010 General Election in Idaho is this: Not a single representative, senator or executive branch official who supported significant reductions in government spending lost re-election Nov. 2. That’s a fact.
Voters rewarded those politicians who stood strong against raising taxes and re-elected candidates with an established record of cutting government spending. This, of course, includes the much-ballyhooed decision to cut public education funding by 7.5 percent.
Gov. Butch Otter, who spearheaded the cut to public schools, took a hammering from challenger Keith Allred, who charged that Otter cut public education without needing to do so. The result: Otter won with 59 percent of the vote in a five-way race. By comparison, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne took 56 percent of the vote in his 2002 re-election bid.
Throughout the 2010 campaign, Superintendent candidate Stan Olson vilified incumbent Tom Luna as Otter’s accomplice in making cuts to education. Yet Luna sailed to victory with a 20-point margin. In 2002, Superintendent Marilyn Howard won re-election over Luna, a newcomer at that time, by less than 7 percentage points.
In the Legislature, the only incumbents who lost Tuesday were Democratic Reps. Liz Chavez of Lewiston, Mary Lou Shepherd of Wallace and Brandon Durst of Boise. All three voted against spending cuts to education, yet that position didn’t spare them the voters’ ax. Out of more than 30 incumbents with races who voted to in favor of cuts to public education, only three won with less than 60 percent of the vote. Despite opponents imploring voters to toss incumbents who slashed spending, the electorate wasn’t moved to do so.
The reality that politicians can cut spending without voter reprisal is no bombshell to those who have studied spending cuts and the electorate’s response. Earlier this year, the Reason Foundation and others trumpeted a report by Goldman Sachs Global Economics, whose author, Ben Broadbent, wrote, “It is commonly assumed that cuts in government spending will be both economically painful and electorally costly. Neither is borne out in the data.” Broadbent’s study found cost cutting measures by the governments of Ireland, Sweden and Canada over the last 20 years resulted in no demonstrative electoral backlash.Other studies throughout the years have produced similar results, but politicians still fear that cuts will mean their demise at the ballot box. The fear is largely unwarranted.
All of this brings us to the next legislative session, when Idaho lawmakers, despite all of their spending cuts in 2010, still face the prospect of a sizable budget shortfall. It is true lawmakers reduced the size of government last winter. But the major changes — I’m talking the revolutionary changes that redefine government — have yet to be made. Government remains large and unwieldy. Entitlement programs have yet to be eliminated.
Given the voters’ unflinching support of those political leaders who backed spending cuts, the governor and lawmakers should feel emboldened to cut spending, cut programs and make courageous, systematic reforms that need to be made. Lawmakers have the voters’ mandate and blessing to get the job done.