Analysis: Grocery tax veto tears open a widening rift in GOP

(UPDATED, 10:30 a.m., with Reps. Bryan Zollinger and Ron Nate challenging the timing of Otter’s veto.)

Some Statehouse conservatives have given up pretending.

They have abandoned all appearances of common cause with Gov. Butch Otter. With the governor’s Tuesday evening veto of the grocery tax repeal, those fractures are likely to become only more pronounced.

And this rift could play a prominent role in the 2018 Republican primary, now barely 13 months away.

The unrest from the right has never been that carefully hidden. It just started bubbling over last week, when Otter put the veto stamp to four bills that enjoyed bipartisan backing — bills on cosmetology licensing, civil asset forfeiture and invasive species.

Said first-term Rep. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls, “2019 a new governor and actual leadership cannot come soon enough.” Said Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, at a heated town hall meeting covered by the Coeur d’Alene Press: “The Legislature’s power has been marginalized. Until we get a (real) Republican governor, we’re just going to be swimming in circles.”

The Idaho Freedom Foundation — a conservative group that pushed hard for the grocery tax repeal — hasn’t exactly been mincing words of late. Dustin Hurst, the group’s communication director, has taken to calling Otter the worst governor in America. The official response to the grocery tax veto?

“In just about 655 days, Idaho will have a new governor, and I predict that governor will be an actual conservative who will not hesitate to sign a bill to end the taxation of food,” foundation president Wayne Hoffman said.

So, yes, things have escalated.

Otter did not back off Tuesday. In his veto message, Otter scolded lawmakers for ignoring him — and described the repeal as “an $80 million tattoo” that could cause irreparable harm to the state’s tax code. “The truth is this bill’s benefits are largely imaginary while the downsides are many and very real.”

From a policy perspective, Otter is sticking to a common theme. He argues that the grocery tax repeal would jeopardize funding for K-12 and other state services. He made a similar argument earlier Tuesday, when he chastised the Legislature for siphoning $15 million of sales taxes away into highway projects.

This time, though, he stopped short of vetoing a $300 million-plus highway bill. He merely restated his objection to pitting infrastructure needs against classroom needs. But Otter allowed the bill to become law without his signature — in essence, changing his vote from “no” to “meh.”

So what are we to make of all of this, as Otter’s detractors are literally counting down his remaining days on the second floor of the Statehouse?

First, don’t expect the grocery tax issue to go away. It should be a talking point in the governor’s race, but maybe not much of a point of contention. Lt. Gov. Brad Little and former state Sen. Russ Fulcher support a repeal. Boise developer-doctor Tommy Ahlquist called Tuesday’s veto “very disappointing.”

Looking at the three high-profile Republicans in the field, Hoffman’s prediction that Idaho’s next governor will support a repeal seems plausible enough.

That assumes, of course, that the 2018 Legislature doesn’t push for a repeal, over Otter’s opposition. And two House Republicans aren’t giving up on the 2017 repeal; Zollinger and Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, say Otter’s veto came one day after his deadline to address 2017 legislation, and they said they are prepared to go to court to try to get the veto tossed out. (Here’s more about the deadline debate from Melissa Davlin of Idaho Public Television.)

As things stand now, the 2017 Legislature has no tax relief to show for its 80 days in Boise. In other words, bank on a big election-year push for tax cuts next winter. And bank on a lengthy debate over striking a balance between tax cuts and continued funding for the teacher career ladder and other education initiatives.

In his Tuesday evening veto message, Otter tried to set the stage for 2018 by voicing his support for a compromise that flamed out in the final days of the 2017 session.

“I am calling on the Legislature to send me a bill as soon as possible in the 2018 session to provide the unemployment insurance tax relief I sought this year and a one-tenth of 1 percent reduction in individual and corporate income tax rates,” Otter wrote.

In order to pull that off, Otter and legislators might have to pretend they enjoy working together.