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Otter’s session

Butch Otter
Butch Otter

Afew weeks back Idaho Governor Butch Otter, who tends to be a bit more candid than the average successful politician, acknowledged a couple of weeks ago, “There’s a lot of things that I pointed out in my State of the State that haven’t passed. Unfortunately, I can’t think of one that has.”

A couple of weeks later, another marker cropped up: A quick, substantial string of six full (plus one line-item) vetoes in rebuttal to a legislature firmly controlled by lawmakers who are a philosophical and partisan match for the conservative Republican governor. Vetoes are a part of the process and they can be useful or even necessary, but in an important respect they are a trouble sign: They are what happens when things haven’t been resolved through more peaceful means.

So you can’t really call this a successful session for the still-new governor. (Of course, leaving aside areas of gubernatorial involvement, it was a session unusually light on accomplishment.)

But we’ll hold off grading the governor’s efforts until we see how he does next time. That will tell whether he’s learned the right lessons from this year’s efforts. First sessions are often tricky for governors; and this one tried to do some large things without laying the proper groundwork. The year ahead will give him that opportunity.

The veteran lobbyists understand this: You’re trying to convince 105 people, for many of whom status quo is often not a bad place to be, to change something. That’s not an easy proposition. Bill Roden, a Boise attorney who has been one of the most effective lobbyists in Idaho over the span of a couple of generations, has lost, in specific sessions, many of the more ambitious legislative projects his clients have sought. That doesn’t seem to have particularly bothered him; he knows that the big stuff often takes a while to work through, both in building alliances and “buy-in” and in sanding off the rough edges. He may fail decisively in year one on some big effort, come closer in year two, and by year three slide the sucker on through. Successful lobbying is time-intensive.

Otter, who has significant legislative experience – six years this decade in the Congress, four in the 70s in the Idaho House – seemed to have forgotten this. He didn’t do much to prepare legislators for what was coming ahead; his calls for efforts of substance didn’t show up in early pronouncements last year or even in his inaugural or state of the state speeches, where they logically would have appeared. Instead, they were discovered, like unearthed land mines, as legislators and reporters perused the governor’s budget books. They were caught by surprise, and that didn’t help. The end result was more confrontation and less legislative passage than might have been otherwise the case. (We’re thinking here, for example, of the proposed rearrangement of administration and human resources offices.)

This means there really wasn’t a legislative determination that Otter’s ideas were bad or unacceptable, just that the case for them hadn’t been well enough made.

Otter has some fine skills at doing that sort of thing, and he didn’t take advantage of them before the session got underway. Now, with the first rush of administrative and legislative action over, he can take a breather and get about that work. A good deal of what Otter didn’t get passed this session, probably could the next, or the one after, if he approaches the work of lobbying a little differently.

We’ll be back to review his larger-picture level of success, then, in another year.

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