Gov. Butch Otter said Wednesday he will champion restoring pieces of three education laws voters widely rejected last month, after seeing a poll showing Idahoans still back aspects of the reforms.
“We got back some very good numbers that I think we can rely on,” Otter told the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho at a Boise meeting that marks the informal annual kickoff of the legislative season.
“There were parts and pieces of every one of those that folks did want,” Otter said, adding that he’s working on providing suggestions to lawmakers when they convene Jan. 7. “There will be some early ideas that come forth.”
Otter didn’t elaborate on what portions of Propositions 1, 2 and 3 he will try to revive, but highlighted the importance of boosting technology in classrooms. “I know something is going to come, with us or without us,” Otter said.
The poll was commissioned by a group associated with Otter, Education Voters of Idaho, which raised about $640,000 in support of the propositions. EVI spokesman John Foster declined to release the poll Wednesday.
During the question period, former state economist Mike Ferguson asked Otter if he believed the state is complying with the Idaho Constitution’s mandate that Idaho “maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”
Ferguson now directs the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, which says support for Idaho schools has fallen by a fifth since 2000. The center says after decades of funding schools at roughly 4.4 percent of personal income, the figure fell to 3.5 percent in fiscal 2013. Meanwhile, school districts are increasingly relying on voter-approved supplemental levies, which rose from $140 million to $169 million this year.
At first, Otter said, “I’m not prepared to answer that question,” and asked Ferguson whether the state has ever met the standard. He added that it isn’t fair for rural districts to offer less robust curriculum than urban districts.
Finally, Otter said, “I would say that we’re probably not (meeting the constitutional obligation), but we’re doing the best we job that we can and we’re going to continue to do the best job that we can.”
Otter also left tea leaves to be read on three other key issues for the 2013 session: whether he’ll ask lawmakers to approve a state-run health insurance exchange; urge them to take advantage of federal incentives to expand Medicaid coverage; and the details of his support for repeal of the personal property tax, which raises about $130 million a year for local governments.
By Dec. 14, Otter has to tell the federal government whether Idaho will operate its own exchange, do so in partnership with the federal government, or leave the job to the feds. Otter will meet with newly elected legislative leaders Friday afternoon to discuss the issue.
Proponents of a state exchange, which include Idaho’s big insurers and employers, may be heartened to hear Otter’s civics lesson after failed efforts to overturn Obamacare in the courts and at the ballot box.
“I want to remind you, we are a republic,” he said. “And one of the first and most important tenets of the republic is the rule of law. So, like it or not, we’ve tried to change the law, we’ve challenged the law, we’ve done everything we possibly could.
“And now we have to make the decision and that decision will come down. It’s not going to please everybody, I’m sure. Those of us that have to make the decision probably won’t be pleased about it.”
Opponents may be pleased to hear Otter’s criticism of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for changing the rules for implementation. “It’s kind of been on the installment plan,” Otter complained.
“Every time we think we’re at a point where we’re ready to make a decision on it, then we get another set of rules and regulations that changes the dynamic of what we thought we were dealing with when we were going through the investigation and the hearings on whether or not we oughta establish a state insurance exchange.”
On Medicaid, Otter said he hasn’t gotten solid answers from governors who have opted to add more low-income beneficiaries to the health plan heavily subsidized by the feds but costing Idaho hundreds of millions annually.
At first, the feds will pick up all the cost of the expansion, later dropping to 90 percent. Expansion would add an estimated 80,000 recipients to about 238,000 Idahoans already on the plan.
Otter said he’s concerned about the financing scheme. “One of the most intriguing and inviting reasons for the expansion is it’s all paid for. The next question is how are they going to get the money?”
Otter then said he fears continuing growth of federal power. “I’ve often wondered what a second Jimmy Carter term would look like,” referring to the Democratic president defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980. “I think we’re going to find out. I think that probably the next four years are going to see a dramatic and continued expansion of not only the federal government, but a consequential reduction of the powers and authorities (of the states). It’s not something I’m looking forward to, but I signed onto the job.”
On repealing personal property tax, Otter reiterated his support but cautioned that state revenue projections have been scaled back since the 2012 legislative session. Projected growth in fiscal 2013, which ends in June, has been cut from 3 percent to 2.7 percent, he said. Projected growth in fiscal 2014 has been scaled back from 5.9 percent to 5.2 percent.
That makes backfilling $130 million in lost property taxes to local government problematic, Otter said. “We do not have a placeholder for $130 million in that budget,” adding that repeal may have to be phased in.