After his final session as governor, Otter touts education record

On Thursday, Gov. Butch Otter said he would rather celebrate legislative wins than “dwell” on legislative losses.

And many of those wins were in education, Otter said during his annual post-legislative news conference. He praised lawmakers for putting new money into teacher pay, classroom technology, college scholarships and community colleges. And he said he understood why lawmakers balked at creating a $200,000-a-year higher education “CEO.”

Reflective and generally relaxed, Otter spent an hour fielding questions Thursday, one day after the end of his 12th and final legislative session as governor.

It was a wide-ranging Q&A. He issued a standing offer to this year’s gubernatorial candidates to tour Idaho’s death row, and see firsthand the most important decision they will have to face. He didn’t criticize lawmakers for not voting on his health care bill. The mood was generally light, although Otter castigated one reporter who asked the governor to weigh in on the dustup over renaming the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness for former Gov. Cecil Andrus. (Otter later apologized.)

But before the Q&A, Otter began by rattling off the session’s accomplishments, starting with education:

  • Round four of teacher pay raises under the career ladder, covering a $42 million installment on a five-year, $250 million plan.
  • A $10.5 million boost in technology spending — although Otter says this line item is “anemic,” compared to need.
  • Launching a statewide reading test, after some leading legislators balked at the idea.
  • Getting the go-ahead for a scholarship to help adults return to college. Otter had fought for this scholarship for three years.

Otter lost the fight for the CEO, or “chief education officer.” But he said he understood why lawmakers want to first hire a consultant to study the higher education system, and scope out the potential for cost savings. “It made sense to me.”

Otter was flanked by four fellow Republicans: Lt. Gov. Brad Little and three members of legislative leadership. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, called education Otter’s legacy. “It was a great run for three terms,” Winder said.

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Little, Otter’s candidate of choice in the 2018 governor’s race, praised the state’s fiscal balance, which allowed the state to invest in education, cut taxes and bolster its savings accounts.

The tone was decidedly different Wednesday, when Democratic leaders held their end-of-session news conference. House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, called the state’s income tax cuts “reckless.” If the economy slows, he said, the state could be hard-pressed to cover the fifth year of the career ladder.

The legislative endgame: the vetoes

Otter ended up vetoing only two bills all session, and both were education-related. House Bill 501 would have removed the Idaho Reading Indicator from the list of metrics that are used to measure student growth — and, perhaps, award teacher pay raises. House Bill 566 would have relaxed hiring criteria for charter school administrators.

Both vetoes were issued earlier this week — after lawmakers had finished voting on the last legislation of the year, and while they waited to see what Otter would do with these bills. Ultimately, the waiting game didn’t amount to much. The House voted to uphold Otter’s veto on HB 501, and allowed his HB 566 veto to go into effect without a vote.

It was a new process — an offshoot of a 2017 Idaho Supreme Court opinion that directed legislators to stay in town until their last bills reach the governor’s desk. Legislative leaders stood by their decision to stay in session through Wednesday afternoon, and after Otter acted on all bills.

Winder suggested the Legislature will do the same thing in future years, “if there are issues that are important enough to warrant staying around.”

The legislative endgame: the non-vetoes

More frequently, however, Otter weighed in by using a different tool at his disposal. He allowed 11 bills to become law without his signature — including some of the most high-profile proposals of the year. And in letters to legislative leadership, Otter spelled out his concerns.

In one case, Otter’s wording was ominous. He warned that a “stand your ground” law increases the risk that mischievous children or teenagers will be shot for trespassing. He also cautioned that a separate trespassing law could have a chilling effect on recreationists or outdoor enthusiasts.

Education bills were not spared. He criticized — but stopped short of vetoing — a bill targeting Idaho’s senior year math requirement. He criticized lawmakers for adding $11 million to one public school budget, partly to help offset rising insurance costs.

Otter defended his decisions Thursday. He said he had to weigh all bills in their totality, rather than picking out “one or two things” in the legislation. He said he hopes legislators will fine-tune these laws in the future, based on his criticism. But he also said, in the short term, that the Legislature would have been able to override his veto on some of these bills.

“Beating my head against a wall is no fun either,” he said.

More reading: A detailed look at who won, and who lost, this year’s education debates.

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