Introducing the ‘liberal’ governor of Idaho

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It’s not surprising to see the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s Wayne Hoffman lashing out at Gov. Butch Otter for promoting a “liberal agenda.” But not everyone is so quick to mention “Butch Otter” and “liberal” in the same sentence.

The Lewiston Tribune’s editorial writer, Marty Trillhaase, knows “liberal” when he sees it. And Otter doesn’t qualify. My good friend, Marty, keeps reminding readers that under Otter’s leadership, Idaho is 47th in teacher pay, 50th out of 51 in funding per pupil and 48th in tax burden. Marty would be the last to compare Otter with Bernie Sanders.

On the opening day of this legislative session, Democrats made it clear that Otter was no “liberal” hero. They thought his proposal for some $200 billion in tax cuts was too high and would hurt families.

But in Wayne’s world, that’s not conservative enough. He called on Lt. Gov. Brad Little, Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill of Rexburg and House Speaker Scott Bedke of Oakley to put the brakes on Otter’s “big government” agenda. Hoffman says that Otter, employing “budget accounting gimmicks,” is proposing spending increases of more than 9 percent — and not the 6.6 percent that he outlined for public view.

“Once again, Gov. Butch Otter has put forward a jaw-dropping, unaffordable spending plan and liberal-policy agenda,” Hoffman said. “It’s time for our state Legislature, especially (Bedke and Hill) to lead the way and stop this unaffordable budget …”

The top leaders have heard Hoffman’s “wolf” cry many times.

“We are not a liberal state and Butch Otter has never been a liberal governor,” said Hill. “It’s easy to criticize, but when you have respon-sibilities, you have to govern.”

Bedke says, calmly, that the governor’s recommendation is just one step in the process. It’s the Legislature’s job to provide the next step, and he expects adjustments. “In my perfect world, I’d like to see the budget number (percentage increase) to have a 4 in front of it, if not in the low 5s.”

With Idaho being labeled as the nation’s fastest-growing state, he said, the state will have to fulfill certain needs that come with growth. “I’m going to have people telling me we are dangerously full with our prisons.”

Bedke doesn’t see a 9 percent growth in the budget, as Hoffman claims. “I can do math with the best of them, but nobody has walked me to that point. What I am committed to doing this year is significant tax relief. I think we can do that and maintain our commitment to the public schools and other places.”

Little chuckles at the notion of Otter being anything close to “liberal” in his approach. Little says he and the governor have shared some hardline conservative views over the years, but they also appreciate the need to run an effective state government.

“The children of Idaho have to be educated. The tax policy needs to work,” said Little, who is running to succeed Otter. “I know a lot of lieutenant governors in other states who would love to run for governor that is in the same financial condition as Idaho.”

In Hill’s view, “I don’t know what people want to cut to turn a liberal budget into a conservative one without cutting education. There’s no room anywhere else.”

Maybe that’s not quite right. In a libertarian sense, do we really need a Department of Education, Department of Commerce, Department of Labor, or Department of Environmental Quality? And should a state have a Department of Health and Welfare? Charitable organizations and churches are well equipped to provide the safety net that people need.

At least, that’s how some conservatives see it. We’ll see how the voters feel about it as well. The choices are clear in the governor’s race, with the range going from Congressman Raul Labrador and Tommy Ahlquist — who are offering a string of “conservative” solutions — to Little, who will keep Idaho on its same general course.

On the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s end, Bedke sees the organization’s motivation going beyond so-called “liberal” agendas. “It’s about raising money. If they can vilify us, and position themselves as a solution, that’s a great business plan.”

It’s also a plan that also tends to work exceedingly well in political campaigns, as President Trump can attest.

• • •

Chuck Malloy, a longtime Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at

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