Otter signs scholarship expansion bill into law

With the legislative session all but wrapped up, Gov. Butch Otter took a victory lap Friday as he signed a bill expanding a popular scholarship.

For three years, Otter has pushed for a scholarship to help entice adults to return to college and finish their degrees or certificates.

In each of the two previous years, the Legislature said no.

This year, Otter changed up his strategy and pushed Senate Bill 1279. That bill — a law as of Friday morning — combines the existing Idaho Opportunity Scholarship with Otter’s adult completer’s scholarship. Under the new law, the State Board of Education can divert up to 20 percent of available scholarship funds to adults who are returning to school, so long as they have already amassed 24 credits and are working on their first degree.

The bill’s narrow 37-32 passage through the House Monday brought Otter a political victory as he prepares to retire after serving three terms as governor.

“If I ever had a going-home bill, this is it,” Otter said. “And after 12 years, I’m ready to go home.”

Under a separate bill, the Legislature increased state funding for the scholarship, from $10 million to $13.5 million annually.

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During Otter’s bill-signing ceremony, he appeared loose and jovial. He mentioned he could have benefited from a similar bill as a young man, noting he dropped out of high school at age 16 and didn’t earn a diploma until he was 20. Then, Otter joked he soon became the most popular kid in school because he was the only one old enough to buy beer — as a sophomore.

Otter, one of Idaho’s GOP standard-bearers for decades, even invited Democrats to speak at the ceremony.

Perhaps that was Otter’s way of acknowledging the scholarship bill would have failed yet again if Democrats hadn’t banded together to pass it over the opposition of key Republicans — including three-fourths of House GOP leadership.

Either way, new Rep. Margie Gannon, D-St. Maries, seized her moment in the spotlight when Otter prompted her to say a few words.

Gannon appeared modest at first. Then she pointed out the scholarship bill was the very first piece of legislation she debated in favor of on the House floor.

Gannon reminded Otter that he watched his scholarship proposal fail in each of the previous two years. Then Gannon described how she rode into town as an 11th-hour replacement for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paulette Jordan.

“You think that’s a coincidence?” Gannon quipped.

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