Otter holds firm on transportation funding, explains veto

Gov. Butch Otter is sticking to his guns on the transportation issue — and keeping as much money as possible in the general fund.

And that, he said, is why he vetoed a school funding bill championed by one of his Republican critics in the Legislature.

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Gov. Butch Otter

Otter met briefly with reporters Thursday morning, after signing the bill that sets the five-year teacher career ladder plan into motion. With the often-contentious teacher salary issue resolved for the 2015 session, Otter fielded questions about the issues that remain in legislative limbo: transportation funding and tax overhaul.

Otter restated his admonishment from his Jan. 12 State of the State address: An adequate transportation plan must make a significant dent in Idaho’s highway maintenance backlog, and it should rely on gasoline taxes or user fees.

“We need to stay out of the general fund,” Otter said.

In his address kicking off the 2015 session, now in its 81st day, Otter said he did not want education to have to compete with highway projects for general fund dollars. He indicated that he might veto any highway funding plan that took dollars out of the general fund.

Here’s what Otter had to say on other tax and budget issues:

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Tax overhaul: With the House and Senate at odds over other tax issues, Otter didn’t sound very optimistic about the prospects for a compromise.

“Tax reform is going to be a little tougher this year.”

On Monday, the House passed an omnibus tax bill to raise the gas tax by seven cents a gallon, eliminate the sales tax on groceries and flatten the upper end of its individual income tax rates. A day later, the Senate buried this bill in committee, killing it for the session.

Otter’s concern on a tax overhaul, again, circles back to education funding. Specifically, he cited his pledge to fund the five-year implementation of the career ladder — provided dollars are available. “I don’t want to see them shrinking the general fund.”

School funding bill veto: Otter elaborated on his one and only veto of the legislative session so far. On Monday, Otter vetoed House Bill 126, a $1.7 million plan to provide funding for schools that experience enrollment increases during the academic year.

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Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale

The bill passed both houses easily, although the Idaho Association of School Administrators and the Idaho School Boards Association opposed it. Otter maintains that the bill compounds school funding problems, since the state will wind up paying twice for students who transfer during the school year. He would like a task force from his education reform subcommittee to come up with a bill for 2016.

Midvale Republican Rep. Judy Boyle said she has offered another bill to the governor’s office. Otter’s staff has made a counteroffer, she said, but it wasn’t workable.

Otter and Boyle have some recent history. Boyle wrote a stinging op-ed piece in November, blaming the Idaho Education Network school broadband contract fiasco on “crony capitalism” in the governor’s office.

Otter says the dustup had nothing to do with the veto. Boyle said it was “probably” a factor, since his arguments against the bill “don’t make logical sense.”

With Otter’s veto, Boyle’s bill has been held at the House desk — which leaves it in legislative limbo. The bill could remain on hold for the duration of the session, said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, or the House could bring it back and try to override Otter’s veto.

The bill passed both houses by the two-thirds majority needed for an override.

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