Analysis: In a climate of political change, Otter stays the course

On Monday, Gov. Butch Otter talked some about 2016’s change election — and voter frustration.

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Gov. Butch Otter delivered his 11th State of the State address Monday. (Photo by Andrew Reed, Idaho Education News.)

“Voters have expressed a desire for government that works, both here in Boise and in Washington, D.C.,” Otter said during his 11th State of the State address. “They’re tired of timid representation that seems more concerned with the next election than the next generation.”

However, Otter spent much of his 30-minute speech following familiar themes, especially on education. And for the most part, Otter punted on taxes, highways and health care.

Otter insists that the state’s education system is in the middle of change — because a third year of teacher raises comes with an increased focus on accountability.

It’s little surprise that Otter’s 2017-18 budget proposal includes $58 million from a five-year, $250 million plan to boost teacher pay. Otter doesn’t like to divulge many budget details before his annual State of the State address, but for weeks, he has signaled his support for the $58 million for teacher pay.

But at the same time, Otter has also registered his displeasure with the teacher evaluations process — saying legislators deserve to have good data before they sign the check for millions of dollars of pay raises.

So Otter’s budget also includes a $2.5 million line item for training school administrators on how to perform teacher evaluations. Significantly, the $2.5 million would go not to the State Department of Education but to the State Board of Education. In 2016, the Legislature shifted oversight of evaluations from SDE to the State Board — and more recently, several legislators have criticized the SDE and state superintendent Sherri Ybarra for sitting on a pointed external review of 2014-15 teacher evaluations.

Much of the evaluations controversy has centered on flawed data reports to the state — a recurring problem Idaho Education News has covered since June 2015. But during a news conference Monday, Otter raised a more fundamental concern: questioning whether the evaluations themselves are consistent and uniform.

On other education issues, Otter stayed the course — presenting a more scaled-back budget than Ybarra proposed in September.

  • Otter proposed holding the line on schools’ “operational spending” — months after the state finally restored this line item to its pre-recession level of $25,696 per classroom. Ybarra requested $26,467 per classroom. However, Otter proposed $15 million to help schools cover insurance benefits; districts can and frequently do use their operational dollars to pay for increased premiums.
  • Otter proposes staying the course on literacy programs, a major initiative from the 2016 session. He wants to hold the line with an $11.25 million literacy program in 2017-18. Ybarra sought a $2 million increase.

Holding the line seemed like a recurring theme on Monday, and not just on education.

On tax policy, Otter did propose a $46 million cut in unemployment taxes for employers. In one breath Monday, he said he would keep an open mind to further tax cuts — but in the next breath, he talked about the importance of a stable revenue stream, and the perils of midyear budget cuts.

Otter’s $46 million plan got a round of applause from lawmakers listening in the House gallery. But with the state looking at surpluses north of $100 million, there’s no guarantee this plan will satiate the desire of lawmakers who want to pursue tax cuts for working families. In essence, the next move on taxes falls to lawmakers.

The same applies to highways; last week, Otter acknowledged the state has an infrastructure problem, but said he would not address the issue in his State of the State address.

The same also applies to health care, and the “gap population” of 78,000 Idahoans covered by neither Medicaid nor the state’s insurance exchange. Otter again urged caution on this issue, saying it is unclear how the Trump administration and Congress will address Obamacare.

In all, Otter seemed to try to strike a balance Monday. Vetted as a possible nominee for agriculture secretary, Otter went out of his way to embrace and celebrate the change that may come from a Trump administration. “I’m proud that Idahoans voted in support of real and substantial change in our national government and against the stuck-in-the-mud business as usual.”

But when it comes to change at the state level, Otter seemed content to stay the course.

More coverage: Idaho is resurgent, Gov. Butch Otter says in his 2017 State of the State address.