Analysis: Otter delivers a commencement address of sorts

Gov. Butch Otter issued a few challenges Monday, in his 12th and final State of the State address.

The 55-minute speech struck an optimistic tone on the economy — and predictably enough, it included plenty of reflective and nostalgic passages. And it all sounded a bit like a commencement speech, as the governor used his last day on the bully pulpit to urge university leaders to think differently, and to admonish lawmakers to govern thoughtfully.

“Simply saying ‘no’ is not enough,” Otter said. “When the people of Idaho give us authority to act on their behalf, we must govern. Republican and Democrat. Majority and minority. Executive and Legislature. Together. To do less or to dither rather than decide is to shirk our duty and betray the public’s trust.”

Otter fleshed out one of his 2018 initiatives — a CEO or “chief education officer” to scour the higher education system for administrative savings that could be funneled into scholarship programs.

Otter seemed to try to come in with a bit of a lowball offer to legislators. While Idaho business leaders pegged the cost of a higher ed CEO’s office at a ballpark cost of $2.5 million, Otter earmarked $769,500 for the launch, including $500,000 in one-time consulting costs. The CEO would command a salary of $200,000; the presidents of Idaho’s three universities command salaries in the $400,000 range.

Otter took pains to say the CEO would not be a chancellor, an academic who would preside over a consolidated university. But Otter did not sugarcoat his argument for the change. In 2010, Idaho unveiled its “60 percent goal:” a drive to get more 25- to 34-year-olds to obtain a college degree or professional certificate. That postsecondary completion rate sits at 42 percent.

“The system itself is slow to adapt and too good at perpetuating the status quo,” Otter said. “Without these changes, we very likely will make no more progress toward that goal in the next 10 years than we have in the past seven.”

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Otter’s higher education budget is anything but lavish. He proposes a 2.3 percent increase for 2018-19 — compared to a 6 percent increase for K-12 and a 6.6 percent overall budget increase. Otter proposed a $5 million increase in the state’s Opportunity Scholarship — a popular program that isn’t coming close to serving all qualified high school students. But he also proposed freeing up some of the money for an adult completer scholarship to help some of the 277,700 Idahoans who have some college education but no degree.

The adult completer scholarship proposal has gone nowhere the past two sessions. And when Otter brought up the idea Monday, he got nothing but crickets from the lawmakers assembled in House chambers. It could be a tough fight.

Otter admonished legislators on other issues, including taxes. He chided lawmakers for failing to roll back unemployment tax rates — a popular proposal that was hijacked in the tax battles that punctuated the end of the 2017 session. He also proposed across-the-board cuts in personal and corporate income tax rates. All told, his budget includes about $200 million in tax cuts — even if the state conforms with the new federal tax overhaul, which could leave Idahoans paying about $94.7 million in additional income taxes to the state.

But when Otter and legislators were last together, they were at odds over a repeal of the sales tax on groceries — a bitter dispute that went to the Idaho Supreme Court. Some lawmakers still want to get rid of the grocery tax, while Otter remains opposed to repeal. And candidates to succeed Otter have their own ideas about tax overhaul. Rep. Raul Labrador, for example, has proposed much deeper cuts in income tax rates and a rollback of the sales tax rate.

If there’s one issue that could stymie this Legislature, especially in an election year, it’s taxes.

Otter spent a considerable portion of his speech challenging lawmakers — and challenging what he called “hidebound opposition” to progress. And he seemed to seek common ground with today’s legislative mavericks, recalling his own time as a brash young legislator who made his first gubernatorial run 40 years ago.

“I’ve come a long way from the brash young revolutionary who served in this body and ran for governor with big ideal but precious little perspective.”

If these were meant to be applause lines, they didn’t fly. Like any commencement speaker, Otter seemed determined to impart perspective. But his message was met with crickets.

More reading: In his final State of the State address, Otter made education his top priority. Get all the numbers here.

 

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