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What Little said, and didn’t

johnson

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.
 

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