Otter: Idaho needs to spend more on infrastructure
BOISE — Idaho Gov. Butch Otter told the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce on Friday that Idaho needs to invest in its infrastructure, from roads and bridges to college campuses.
“If I had one suggestion that I was not able to accomplish that I would like to see the next governor and the next Legislature pay more attention to, it’s deferred maintenance,” Otter said. “I have tried to convince, unsuccessfully, the Legislature to get more money.”
The outgoing third-term governor, in his final annual address to the chamber, said, “I tried to convince my conservative friends: Don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish.” While many rage over the national debt that’s been run up in Washington, D.C., Otter said, he sees failing to invest in roads, bridges and other infrastructure as the equivalent of deficit spending.
“I still believe we’re about $280 million short of fixing the highways, fixing the bridges,” Otter said. “And we know for a fact that if we can chip-seal a lane-mile of highway every seven years, it costs $25,000. If we don’t do that for 18 years, I can replace the whole highway for $1.3 million.”
He noted that half of the 4,500 bridges in Idaho will reach the end of their useful life in the next 10 years.
“I haven’t been able to convince enough people in the Legislature,” he said. “We raised the gas tax 7 cents; registration fees, we raised them a little bit, but far short of the $280 million we needed.”
Said Otter, “If we accomplish anything next year, I think we ought to try to convince the Legislature that there’s no difference between that debt that we’re building in Washington, D.C., and deferred maintenance — it’s deficit spending. If we don’t spend $25,000 this year, my grandkids are going to spend a million-three in 18 years. … We’ve got to keep things up.”
Much of Otter’s talk focused on how Idaho came through the deep recession that took hold shortly after he began his first term as governor. He said the chamber was an important partner in that effort, and touted his record of tax cuts, even during the downturn, and economic growth since.
“One of the things I’m going to be most proud of is the fact that we are now a $68 billion economy, we’ve got 2.7 percent unemployment and we’ve got almost a half a billion in the bank,” the governor said. “And we’ve got a governor coming on that’s going to continue that.”
Brad Little, currently Otter’s lieutenant governor, was elected this week to succeed Otter in January.
Otter said when the state went through the recession, “Everybody was nervous. … How are we going to survive this?”
He said he looked to the state Constitution and state law, and focused on what was necessary, not just “nice.”
Education is at the top of the list, he said. “That’s not a suggestion, that’s in the Constitution. That’s a requirement.”
He said, “If you look at the budget today, you’ll find that No. 1 is education, No. 2 is Health & Welfare, and No. 3 is corrections, and you’ll find that those three represent 94 percent of the state budget.”
“We learned some things about ourselves, between ‘nice’ and ‘necessary’ during that recession,” Otter said. “My cabinet, those folks that are running these state agencies, they have institutionalized that discipline, so I doubt it’s going to be very easy to go back to some of the old ways.”
Otter also praised the efforts that resulted in launching two new community colleges on his watch, the fast-growing College of Western Idaho and the new College of Eastern Idaho, both approved by voters after the state offered $5 million for startup costs.
“There was a pent-up demand for community colleges in Idaho,” he said. “In fact, I would hope that the next governor, Brad, continues to offer that $5 million to any area that wants to build a community college.”