Thursday’s timing was interesting, to say the least.
Gov. Butch Otter abruptly postponed his annual post-legislative session news conference. The event was scheduled for 2 p.m.; at 1:24 p.m., Otter’s office emailed a media advisory calling off the event until Monday.
The explanation: Otter has come down with laryngitis, spokesman Jon Hanian told Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review.
Whether that’s a frog stuck in the governor’s throat — or, say, a grocery tax bill — is fodder for conspiracy-minded observers. But the fact is, the post-legislative session plot is thicker than usual.
The biggest question surrounds the grocery tax. Lawmakers voted to repeal the sales tax on groceries — but even before they did that, Otter sent a letter to Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill expressing his opposition. The March 16 letter did not overtly threaten a veto, and Otter tends to avoid signaling his intentions beforehand. However, Otter made clear than he is no fan of the repeal, which would take close to $80 million a year out of the general fund budget. “I see no reason to change our current system and I oppose efforts to do so,” Otter wrote.
Kind of hard to walk back from that.
But here’s the rub. If Otter does veto the grocery tax repeal — which passed both houses with overwhelming bipartisan support — tax cuts are dead for 2017. Otter’s three-year, $115 million unemployment tax cut didn’t happen. The House amended the bill to add a round of income tax cuts, the Senate rejected the amendment, and the unemployment tax cut was caught in the crossfire.
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A year without a tax cut might not be an urgent matter to Otter, who is not seeking re-election. But for legislators looking ahead to the 2018 elections, a lost year is a big deal indeed.
When Otter next meets the press, he will surely be grilled on the grocery tax. That reality alone will make for an unusual event. The Otter post-session presser tends to be a congenial and congratulatory event, with the governor and legislative leaders taking turns touting the session’s work. The presser is usually orchestrated to make sure key legislators can share the podium. Come Monday, it’ll be interesting to see which legislators show up (five days after dropping the gavel on the 2017 session) and see how they interact when the grocery tax topic comes up.
But because legislators have adjourned for the year, Otter has a clear path to veto the grocery tax — or any other bill, for that matter. Lawmakers cannot override his veto, even if they had the votes and the inclination to do so.
This is the time of year when a governor truly gets the last word, laryngitis notwithstanding.