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A supermajority session


One decade ago, following the 2008 general election, something unusual happened at the Oregon Legislative Assembly: One party controlled both chambers with supermajority numbers.

Democrats held 18 of the 30 seats in the Senate, and 36 of the 60 seats in the House of Representatives. The numbers were significant, because since 1996 the Oregon Legislature has been required by the state constitution to obtain three-fifths of each chamber to approve "bills for passing revenue." Until 2009, neither party had controlled enough seats in both chambers to meet that requirement.

The 2009 session was ambitious for the Democrats. Its results included the Healthy Kids Act (for children's health care), major transportation projects (including the Newberg-Dundee bypass) - and significant tax increases to pay for it all, changing income and other tax levels.

In the 2010 election, Democrats lost their supermajority control. In the House, they lost enough seats to result in an even split - meaning joint control - with Republicans.

Now, a decade after all that, Democrats again have supermajorities in both chambers - just barely. They control 38 of the 60 House seats, and 18 of the 30 Senate seats. (One of the Democratic senators has been known to split from the caucus on certain votes from time to time.) A question for legislators this session is: How cautious might they be, considering recent history?

Some early indicators say: Not very. Governor Kate Brown, fresh off a campaign in which her opponent argued that schools have been underfunded, has proposed a $2 billion tax increase, intended mainly to boost public school funding.

One of the critical questions surrounding that will call for quick consideration: Exactly where should expanded funding go? Brown's proposal is aimed mainly at public schools. But higher education advocates point to persistent underfunding of the state's colleges and universities. Several organizations, including the Oregon Student Association (which includes college and university students) are pushing for as much as $2 billion more for higher education.

School funding may be getting a brighter spotlight this session than usual, but it is a perennial issue, and other perennials will sprout as well.

The high cost of the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) will come in for another examination, as in many past sessions. The scaling down of costs urged by its critics won't necessarily get a lot farther than it usually does (which is not very), but some new ideas are being broached. Among them, coming from at least one Democrat: Developing a new system of retirement planning for new public employees along the lines of a 401K system.

Greenhouse gas control, which was a hot topic in the last couple of sessions but did not get far, will be back. A planned "cap and invest" bill has been in development for weeks, and may be one of the hottest debate topics early in the session. Brown's proposed budget could provide some added impetus this year on the subject, since she is proposing creating a new Oregon Climate Authority which would help govern a state carbon marketplace.

The coming months will also, however, see a large collection of new, or at least newer, legislative proposals.

Affordable housing, the subject of the only constitutional amendment approved by voters on last year's general election ballot, will be the focus of several bills. What form the proposals may take is not clear yet, but an evident voter concern about the issue is likely to result in a strong push. One option mentioned by many legislators (and pushed by a group called the Community Alliance of Tenants): A statewide plan to set limits on rent prices.

Other hot-button topics may generate bills which have a rougher ride. Guns will be back for discussion with a proposal to increase penalties for owners who fail to secure their weapons. One bill summary suggests the new law could impose fines of $500 for a simple offense and up to four times as much if a child gains improper access to the gun. Senate President Peter Courtney of Salem is proposing Oregon toughen its driving under the influence legal limit, dropping the allowable level from a blood alcohol level of .08 now to .05. Only Utah has a limit that low.

Senator Floyd Prozanski, who in 2017 proposed an unsucessful measure which might lead to interstate commerce in cannabis, has said he may be back with a similar idea this session. A business group called the Craft Cannabis Alliance is proposing to do something similar. (The trade would apply only, of course, to states which like Oregon have legalized marijuana.)

How to pay for all the many ideas circulating? That's where much of the heat - and the critical nature of a Democratic supermajority - come into play. Plenty of tax proposals have surfaced, ranging from increases in minimum business taxes, to changes in kicker tax rebates, to changes in how property assessments (for tax purposes) are calculated. In most recent years passing these tax plans has been, if not impossible, then very difficult. They may be easier with supermajority Democratic control.

At least up to a point. Some Democrats may hit the caution button along the line, recognizing that Oregonian tolerance for tax increases, especially very many at any one time, is distinctly limited. The latter weeks and months of this year's session may hinge on that calculus of the desire to make improvements and advance services around the state, against the cost of paying for them.

The formal session begins in January 22, and runs to mid-summer. A short organizational session will run from January 14 to 17 and include formal swearing in, committee organization and bill introductions.

The people have spoken


The Idaho Constitution flatly declares: “All political power is inherent in the people.” Those people established a government of elected representatives to carry out regular public business. However, they wisely reserved the right to initiate and pass laws when their representatives balk at carrying out the public’s wishes.

We witnessed the people properly taking the law into their own hands last November. For years, public polling indicated that the people wanted to expand the state’s Medicaid program to cover people who earned too much to qualify for coverage, but too little to get assistance under the Affordable Care Act. About 60,000 working folks fall into that gap.

After the Legislature failed year after year to carry out the will of the people, Idaho voters stepped up in record numbers to pass a people’s initiative expanding Medicaid. It is now the law of our state and deserves to be implemented in the form approved by a substantial majority of voters.

Much to his credit, Governor Brad Little has pledged to honor the decision of Idaho voters to expand the Medicaid program. He had promised to do so in his campaign and has just said he will seek implementation of the law in an “Idaho way.” In this case, an Idaho way would be exactly as set out in the measure approved by a 61% vote of Idahoans who went to the polls.

There are those who mean to sabotage the initiated law. The Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF) has challenged the law in court, trying to frustrate the will of the people. The Attorney General has pointed out the substantial flaws in their case and the challenge is bound to fail (although I have no inside information as to how the Supreme Court might rule).

The IFF will likely turn to the Legislature in hopes of amending the new law to death. Rep. Fred Wood, an M.D. who chairs the House Health and Welfare Committee, says the law should be implemented just as approved by a landslide vote of the people. After all, the people hold ultimate political power in our fair state. They had a lengthy campaign to hear and consider both sides of the issue and decide how to vote.

There has been talk of adding work reporting requirements to the Medicaid program, even though there does not appear to be a problem with the current recipients, and the people in the gap are obviously working. Medicaid is an efficient medical program that keeps low-income people healthy at a reasonable cost to the public. Why complicate it with bureaucratic regulations?

The work requirements are likely violative of federal law and have been subject to court challenges for that reason in other states. A court challenge in Idaho would probably just result in the state having to shell out attorney fees for another flawed law.

A work requirement has been a headache in Arkansas, resulting in qualified workers being denied benefits because of complicated reporting requirements. The respected Kaiser Family Foundation reported on the merits of the issue in Implications of Work Requirements: What Does the Data Say? For those interested, it can be found at:

We should assume that the people of Idaho are smart enough to exercise their ultimate policy-making power with wisdom and compassion. They should not be second-guessed by their elected representatives. Those voters who swarmed to the polls in record numbers voted both for a large Republican majority in the Legislature and a qualification-free Medicaid expansion. Should their decision be challenged on either count? The Legislature’s boss has spoken so it should follow those orders.

Dems have the hard road


The national political air is full of 2020 talk these days. For both parties.

Ohio Governor John Kasich seems ready to formalize his run against Trump. Jump in early, suck up media attention but, more importantly, get into the pockets of Republican fat cats. Wise move. To some extent, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is doing the same with Dems.

The GOP field to take on Trump will be small. But, Democrats are coming out of the trees to float their names around. And that’s healthy. Shake out all the contenders, give ‘em their head and see who’s left by convention time. Like Republicans, they’re looking for big bucks because 2020 will be the most expensive fray ever. It’s also guaranteed to be the dirtiest race in our long history of presidential elections.

Several factors are concerning about all this. The first is Trump himself. Short of being in the slammer by then, when the Muller report comes out - and it will despite expected Republicans all-out effort to stop it - Trump’s immediate fate will be an open question.

Those disclosures will damage him. Whether it sinks his political future, we don’t know today. But, even if he escapes the crossbar hotel in the short term, he’ll still be damaged goods. We don’t know how the Muller results will play with Trump’s vaunted base. Safe to say, there’ll likely be some erosion.

The second concern is, if Trump’s in the race, which is nearly certain despite investigations and trials, and the Democrats decide on a woman candidate. The rest of us see nothing wrong with that. But, as he’s proven in the past, Trump will attempt to savage her. His previous attacks on Hillary Clinton and Warren guarantee a name-calling, how-she-looks-and-dresses, character assassination tirade. He doesn’t like or respect talented women professionals. Except Stormy.

Based on his previous treatment of women, a campaign based on issues will be completely overshadowed by sexually bigoted vitriol. Which the media will repeat ad nauseam.

A third danger is one I hear too many Democrats and “talking heads” repeating. Dems need “someone who can win.” Forget qualifications. Ignore the lack of experience and other necessary credentials. “We need someone who can win.”

Remember 2016? Trump ran against about the most qualified and experienced woman on the planet. A sure winner, right? And what did we get? A non-experienced, definitely unqualified male. Determining “who can win” in advance of actual voting has repeatedly been proven very difficult. Oh, there’s the occasional nutcase candidate everyone knows will lose. But, that’s rare.

Many of the names Democrats are bandying about at the moment clearly lack the necessary experience and breadth of knowledge we want to see in the White House. On that list, I’d put Harris, O’Rourke, Booker, Castro, Swalwell, Gabbard, Bloomberg and Inslee. Pick one with firsthand experience in foreign affairs, military, international economics and proven diplomatic skills. Good people but in need of a broader knowledge of - and experience in - such things.

The short list of very qualified Democrats, at least to me, has the names Biden and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. Especially Biden whose long history in the Senate not only includes the above requirements, but also professional - and in some instances - personal relationships with many world figures. In his own long tenure, Brown has had various committee posts that have proven invaluable. He’s also a low-key, soft-spoken thinker - good skills in themselves.

I’m not proposing Biden or Brown be presidential candidates; only pointing out the kind of well-rounded background a suitable nominee ought to have. Biden comes with his own negatives including a case of plagiarizing in the ‘70's which Trump would use as a political club.

The “someone-who-can-win” approach is a dangerous one. All recent presidents have acknowledged it’s not a “learn-on-the-job” situation. And, regardless of previous political background, they’ve also found the actual conditions of being president were much different from what they expected.

!n 2020, Republicans seem stuck with what they have. Democrats face a much harder path. The “who-can-win” argument versus someone with the all-important experience and knowledge necessary in a good president.

Right now it’s all talk and speculation. But, when the bell rings, Democrats had better have the right man. Or woman. Or both.

Idaho Weekly Briefing – January 14

This is a summary of a few items in the Idaho Weekly Briefing for January 7. Would you like to know more? Send us a note at

The Idaho Legislature kicked off with a new speaker about the state of the state, Governor Brad Little. In Washington Senate committee assignments were parceled out, and Senator Jim Risch was named chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The Idaho Legislature convened in its annual session for 2019 on January 7, and the first major item of business was, as usual, hearing from the governor in his state of the state address. Governor Brad Little is following through on his promises to increase teacher pay, make new investments in public education, eventually eliminate the grocery tax, and fully implement Proposition 2 related to Medicaid expansion during his first State of the State and Budget Address.

Senator Jim Risch on January 8 was elected chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the 116 th Congress. Notably, Risch is the third Idahoan to serve as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, following William Borah’s tenure from 1925-1933 and Frank Church’s two year term from 1979-1980.

As the newly-reelected Chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, Senator Mike Crapo will maintain the bipartisan push he began in the previous Congress into the 116th Congress.

Representatives Mike Simpson and Russ Fulcher introduced legislation that would authorize important but routine maintenance at Smith Gulch on the Salmon River in Idaho. The bill would allow the use of limited maintenance equipment needed to maintain the routine functions and safety of the existing lodge.

Governor Brad Little announced that the Idaho Department of Correction said on January 9 he has appealed a U.S. District Court ruling that orders the State of Idaho to provide gender reassignment surgery to an inmate.

Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch have introduced legislation, S.103, to establish an additional federal district judgeship in Idaho for the first time in more than sixty years.

State regulators have approved Rocky Mountain Power’s $8.5 million investment in efficiency programs in 2016 and 2017.

Idaho State University is investigating complaints received by a football player outlining unfair and targeted treatment by coaching staff. On Nov. 14, 2018, ISU received a written complaint from a current football player alleging inappropriate communication from a coach, a lack of playing time, an alleged assault by a coach during an away game, and the student-athlete being incorrectly informed about his eligibility status.

IMAGE The group backing Medicaid expansion in Idaho, Closing the Gap, held a press conference on the subject just after Governor Brad Little’s state of the state address. (photo/Close the Gap)

The real crisis


In his speech from the Oval Office, Trump dwelled on a handful of grisly scenarios, relating in detail violent crimes committed against U.S. citizens by undocumented people.

He did this well-knowing that undocumented individuals commit violent crimes (indeed all crimes) at a per capita rate far lower than that of U.S. citizens. Yet, in his relentless demand for billions of taxpayer dollars to fund his foolish wall the demagogue asked, "How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?"

When he posed this question, I had a brief and fleeting thought -- what if he had issued this call for action not in response to a non-existent crisis on our southern border, but in response to the real, tangible, documented epidemic of gun violence?

What if "Congress" doing "its job" meant enacting reasonable and constitutionally sound gun safety legislation supported by the vast majority of Americans, legislation requiring universal background checks, allowing the CDC to conduct research on gun violence, and re-instating the assault weapons ban?
What if "American blood shed" referred to the more than one hundred thousand Americans who are shot each year in murders, assaults, suicides & suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, or by police intervention?

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has the chilling numbers: almost 90,000 Americans are injured and 35,000 Americans die each year from gun violence.

Border security is an important topic and it needs to be responsibly addressed, but there is no border crisis. I want to hear a prime time speech about a real crisis, the need to end the bloodshed resulting from the NRA's toxic policies and the inaction of morally bankrupt politicians in its thrall.

So now I ask: "When it comes to gun violence, how much more American blood must be shed before Congress -- and the president -- do their jobs?"

What Little said, and didn’t


Like many State of the State speeches by Idaho governors, Brad Little’s first speech to a joint session of the Legislature this week was notable for what the new governor said and what he left unsaid.

No one will accuse Little of scaling many oratorical heights, but his compact, workmanlike 35-minute address did help to both establish his agenda and begin to define his governorship as distinct from outgoing Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter. Little paid tribute to his political partner for the past decade, but then pivoted on a dime and said, “I stand here today not to reminisce about Idaho’s past, but to look to our future.”

The Otter era is over and something new is beginning to unfold.

Little’s rhetoric about the importance of improving education in Idaho was short of aspirational flurries, but the sentiment he expressed about the importance of education seems entirely genuine.

“I know there’s a strong correlation between our education system and the attractiveness of our state to entrepreneurs and businesses,” Little said. “Most importantly, a strong education system helps ensure we keep our best and brightest here in Idaho.”

The challenge to Idaho of keeping the best of the state’s talent at home to gain an education and then land a good job will only increase, and Little seems to instinctively grasp that better schools equal a better economy. His stated determination to keep education at the head of his agenda will serve him well and, I suspect, eventually put him at odds with the skinflints in the Legislature. And that highlights what was left unsaid by the new governor.

There was virtually nothing in Little’s speech to challenge the overwhelmingly Republican Legislature and in fact he took two potentially contentious issues off the Legislature’s plate, at least temporarily.

By finessing the first half-year funding for the Medicaid expansion approved overwhelmingly by voters in November, Little left that fight for next year.

Likewise, while citing uncertainty about state revenue collections, the governor effectively postponed another battle about eliminating the sales tax from grocery purchases, a position he had campaigned on but now acknowledges he lacks the cash to pay for.

In politics, a decision postponed is a decision made and this can was kicked down the road. We’ll see how long the can keeps rolling.

To his credit, the new governor stepped up to assume responsibility for what he called “accountability to Idahoans” for such things as the recent customer service snafus with driver’s licenses. But pointedly Little did not extend the idea of accountability to the ethics of lawmakers or to improvements in campaign and personal financial disclosure, areas where Idaho continues to be very old school and very far from transparent.

Little also declined to challenge legislators with any big plans for really addressing Idaho’s woeful record of high school graduates advancing to further education.

He passed on pushing for meaningful pre-kindergarten education, an initiative broadly supported by the business community and by virtually everyone who understands the importance of giving kids an early educational launching pad. The Legislature has long dithered on such issues and this year at least the new governor seems content to let the dithering continue.

As Boise State University professor Stephanie Witt wisely pointed out, the governor’s speech was also devoid of “fed bashing,” and happily so.

Poking a stick at a federal agency or two has been a standard feature of State of the State speeches in the recent past. Instead, Little struck a cooperative, collaborative tone with talk of working with public land managers. Little’s approach is a welcome change, especially if he sticks with it.

Also missing entirely from Little’s accounting of the State of the State was anything about great and pressing issues that consume Washington, D.C., and threaten the economy.

“Idaho remains a heavily trade-dependent state,” Little said, “with around $2 billion in agricultural exports. When markets are open, agriculture makes the most of those opportunities. When markets are disrupted, we feel it.”

Well, markets are being disrupted, thanks to the simple-minded trade policies of a president who never met a market he didn’t seek to upset. Idaho’s dairy, fruit and potato growers, even the state’s upstart brewing industry, have felt the sting and there was no mention of Idaho’s trade future in China and Mexico, where the state actually has offices to push exports.

One has to assume that pointing out unwise trade policies promulgated by a Republican administration, even when those policies hurt Idaho industries, is apparently too sensitive an issue to raise in a room where 84 of the 105 legislators are Republican.

No single speech, even a new governor’s first State of State, can possibly articulate the full vision of a new administration.

Little may have wisely limited his first year agenda to schools, keeping the economy strong and providing careful stewardship of the state budget. What the governor’s vision lacks in aspiration is balanced by its careful and modest practicality.

Little’s real test will be whether he’s willing to use the full power of the office he now holds to shape legislative outcomes he truly cares about.

His predecessor often seemed reluctant to engage and occasionally confront a Legislature that has rarely in Idaho history cared much about what George H.W. Bush famously called “the vision thing.”

Governors can, if they wish, create a vision and with real leadership push and pull a Legislature to be better than the status quo. Little has all the necessary preparation for the job. His first big speech provided some broad brush hints at what he wants to do.

Check back in April to see if he leads the Legislature or if, more in the style of Otter, he affirms what lawmakers ultimately decide to do.

Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.

Brad speech, Butch speech


Brad Little now has two major addresses - inaugural and state of the state - under his belt as Idaho governor, and they might have given a focused indication of what he will do.

But not exactly. We’re probably going to have to keep watching to figure that out.

The speeches were capable, professional and appropriate. But they were not revelatory; he almost seemed to be holding back rather than expounding on how he thought things should be.

The inaugural was a hello, a thanks and a pointer to the upcoming state of the state speech, delivered as usual on the first day of the Idaho Legislature regular session.

That speech, at about 4,000 words, was shorter than all but one of predecessor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s speeches (and maybe even shorter than that one, from 2017). But otherwise, beyond a slight difference in tone - attributable to different personalities - Little’s address was a lot like most of Otter’s. Little, of course, was present to watch and learn from his predecessor; he was on the podium just behind Otter while most were delivered.

Some of Otter’s earlier speeches leaned heavy on ideology: free markets, limited government, Washington is awful, etc. The last of those came in 2011, and since then Otter - while of course never leaving his philosophy behind - spent most of his SOS speeches talking about policy specifics.

Senate Democratic leader Michelle Stennett was quoted as saying of the Little speech, “I did a happy dance. Because really, much of what he said is something that as Democrats we have been talking about and trying to pass for 10 years — at least as long as I’ve been here. ... Education, the highlights of his speech, are things that we have been working very hard toward.”

That suggests this speech marked a clear change in direction from the last gubernatorial dozen years (at least). Maybe that will materialize, but the speech provided little evidence.

I asked one veteran observer of these speeches what differences he saw; he cited a higher visibility for the first lady and representatives of the state’s Indian tribes, and no real Washington-bashing. But that was about all.

Consider education, to which Little devoted a large chunk of his speech. He had quite a few specifics on offer and some policy changes, though nothing as prospectively dramatic as Otter’s recent proposal to upend the structure of Idaho higher education. But then, Otter has talked about education quite a bit too. In all of his last half-dozen speeches, at least, he devoted about as much discussion to education as Little did. Education accounted for almost a quarter of his longest address, in 2018. And he put his discussion of it in strong terms, as when he started in 2013 by saying, "Like you, my highest priority remains public schools."

The most-noted specific in Little’s speech: “On election day over 60% of voters approved Medicaid expansion. For months I made it clear I would honor the will of the people. I intend to work with you to implement Medicaid expansion using an Idaho approach. We need spring in our safety net so that there are multiple pathways for the gap population to move off Medicaid and onto private coverage.”

The first part seemed definitive enough, but what did the last part mean? Was he calling for work requirements, and if so what kind, or something else, or would that be a misreading? What are the parameters he would or would not accept? Little’s short statement on the subject was treated almost as a break from Otter, but Otter repeatedly (albeit unsuccessfully) tried various compromise approaches in the Medicaid-expansion area, up to and including 2018. Would Otter have said something much different about the Medicaid initiative if he were still governor today? Not a bad question.

How the Little Administration will differ from the Otter Administration, other than in personnel (locus of many changes) is something we’ll need more time to process.

Lost dogs and outrage


My daughters don’t use Facebook. They have their reasons, and I agree with most of them: waste of time, privacy, concern for the level of conversation. So, I was a bit surprised when I got a text from a daughter the day after Christmas asking me to post something on a Facebook site.

They had gone for a ski out in the east county with their dogs. One daughter has a three-year-old 70# mutt she got as a puppy. He was an Attention Deficit puppy, but he has a really good heart and he’s come around. I love him. The other one is new to us. She’s a pretty simple but beautiful 6-month-old Plott hound who follows her nose and not much else. The dogs had run off about 11AM. I got the text about three. They had done the snowy ski a couple times calling, no tracks, no dogs. So, they’d hit some nearby houses and gathering places and someone had suggested the Facebook site for lost dogs in the community.

I asked to join the group, was accepted and posted that night. The daughters came home without dogs.

We went out the next day. Lots of dog tracks, but not ours. Most looked like coyote. My youngest daughter thought she’d seen a wolf track the day before. No dogs that night.

After three days we had kind of given up, but we went out again. We stopped for gas in a nearby town and a guy came out of the store. As the pump was running I said, “Hey we lost a couple dogs out here three days ago.”

“Yeah, I saw it on Facebook.” He responded. He had some local advice about who to check with. But we went home again that night with no dogs.

We didn’t go out the fourth day, but at 3 PM someone called us from a Forest Service road about 3 miles from where they’d run off. We collected the pups. The little one seemed fine, but the mutt had a face full of quills and had lost about 15 pounds. They are doing fine.

Facebook gets no credit for getting the dogs back. The guys who finally called us just read the information on their collars. But it sure was a way to reach out. The posts got over 50 shares. It made us feel connected.

I didn’t successfully use Facebook in any of my campaigns for public office, but the young folks I worked with this last summer on Proposition 2 sure used it to their benefit.

I still see the tool as a very mixed blessing; all tools are. We can use it to connect, communicate and influence. But I think we all need to be a little wiser about that influence aspect. It is difficult for me to communicate clearly in a sentence or two, but that’s what Facebook demands. Influence should require more unless the response you are looking for is outrage. I think that just requires a couple words, maybe a picture.

It’s even more frightening that some folks are spending lots of money to use this tool to their ends, to influence us in ways we might not see. Shame on us for being that simple.

But the simple pup seemed to survive the frozen ordeal the best; then again, she was not outraged at the porcupine.

The Otter legacy


The presidential historian Robert Dallek has frequently said that it typically takes 50 years after a president leaves office to fully reckon with their legacy. It takes that long for the documents to become available, for the memoirs to be written and for the consequences of actions to become clear.

This is typically good news for most presidents. Historians are engaging, for example, in a broad reassessment of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency and Ike is looking better all the time. David McCullough’s masterful biography of Harry Truman rescued “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” from the ranks of the mediocre to something closer to near great. Recent new books about Richard Nixon and Franklin Roosevelt, while essentially affirming what has long been known about their presidencies, offer fresh insights. Roosevelt really was the transformative president of the 20th Century and Nixon really was a crook.

So, as one of Idaho’s longest serving governors prepares to saddle up and ride back to his ranch, is it fair to immediately assess Butch Otter’s legacy? The simple answer is probably not, but the human answer is sure, why not, everyone will.

Almost precisely two years ago in an editorial headlined “Otter Needs A Lasting Legacy” the Idaho State Journal newspaper grappled with the Otter legacy question by asking
“aside from being a crafty politician, what has Otter accomplished for Idaho?”

In a way that is still a valid question. And given Otter’s remarkably long political career it’s amazing that the answer is still elusive. It’s difficult to remember when Otter wasn’t a fixture in Idaho politics. First elected to the state legislature in 1972 at age 30, Otter has spent all but ten of the last 42 years in one or another state office. He is the longest serving Lieutenant Governor in Idaho history and he ends his run tied with Bob Smylie as the second longest serving governor.

Smylie is remembered as the father of the state parks system, the guy who defied much of his party to bring Idaho’s tax structure into the modern era. Other long serving governors, Democrats John Evans and Cecil Andrus for instance, left lasting marks on the state. Evans, like Andrus and Phil Batt later, pushed back against environmental abuses by the Department of Energy (DOE). It is an enduring part of Evans’ legacy that he forced an end to the DOE practice of injecting water containing low-level amounts of nuclear waste into the Snake River Aquifer. And Evans worked with Republican Attorney General Jim Jones to resolve a massive water rights dispute that in the hands of lesser talents might have crippled Idaho agriculture and energy for decades.

Andrus created kindergartens, pushed the Sunshine Initiative, signed the legislation creating Boise State University, helped engineer wilderness protection in the Sawtooths and River of No Return and had his own high profile and vitally important battles with DOE. Batt, a one-term governor, should be remembered for finishing much of Andrus’s fight with DOE and the scrappy little onion farmer became a champion of farm worker rights. After a dozen years it is difficult to point to even one singular accomplishment during Otter’s tenure. His governorship remains a career in search of a legacy.

In valedictory exit interviews Otter has touted his approach to managing the state’s fiscal affairs during and after the Great Recession as a part of his legacy and that may indeed be fair. Any governor would have struggled with the slumping economy and declining revenue that Otter had to confront two years into his first term. Yet part of that legacy must also be the hits suffered by education budgets that even with recent increases leave Idaho at the bottom of most national education rankings. Balancing the state budget is after all a Constitutional requirement, while improving funding and outcomes in the state’s educational system requires a level of leadership and innovation that Otter never quite seemed to master.

Otter can also point to the fact that Idaho remains among the fastest growing states with an unemployment rate well below 3 percent, yet economic growth has largely been powered by explosive – and some might say unsustainable – growth in the Boise Valley.

Historians are likely going to remember the governor’s frequent struggles to get on the same page with his overwhelmingly Republican legislature and the scandals large and small that seemed to dog his administration. But also credit Otter’s willingness to engage with almost anyone, his sense of humor and his genuine nice guy personality. He stands out as one of the best retail politicians in modern Idaho history. He never met a stranger, can quote Shakespeare from memory and clearly grew into the job, while moderating his once flaming libertarianism to the realities of governing.

I remember Otter, while lieutenant governor slipping quietly through the back door into Cece Andrus’s office for their frequent confidential chats, interactions that both men – poles apart politically – came to enjoy and value. Politics and policy aside he’s a decent fellow, an immensely likeable guy.

Ironically, it may well be an Otter vote in October 2001, while a member of Congress that will ultimately define his legacy. With the nation still reeling from the terror attacks of September 11, Otter voted against a Republican president and the Congressional leadership of his party when he opposed the Patriot Act, which he saw as a vast overreach that gave the government unprecedented access to American’s personal information. It was a principled, difficult vote that Otter acknowledged years later might be “the incident that a lot of people used to define me.” It was the also the kind of courage and conviction in the face of great pressure that one wishes more politicians, Otter included, more often embraced.

How Butch Otter is ultimately remembered will have a lot to do with what happened or didn’t happen on his long watch. Sorting that out will take more time. The success or lack thereof of his long-groomed successor Brad Little will also help frame his legacy.

Today, as he rides off after one last rodeo, I’ll wish him happy trails and generous historians in his future.