Gov. Butch Otter, who was Idaho’s lieutenant governor for 14 years before going to the state’s highest office, remembers one important rule from the governor he served under -- Cecil Andrus: Never surprise the governor with revelations about state contracts.
The “Andrus rule,” if you will, was not confined to state contracts. He could be as friendly as your next door neighbor … until somebody surprised him, or worse yet, crossed him. Then, heads would roll.
In Otter’s administration, heads are not rolling as a result of the illegal Idaho Education Network contract to provide broadband connection to schools, or the botched private prison contract with Corrections Corporation of America – at least not yet. Specific finger pointing on both matters may be a few high-level investigations away.
But as he told reporters last Thursday, “Admittedly, I was surprised.”
To the governor’s credit, he’s taking ownership of these massive foul-ups. The meeting with reporters was cordial and he didn’t lash out at anyone for unfair reporting, as some politicians on the hot seat do. The governor doesn’t spend his time engineering contract negotiations, but his staff does and he’s accepting responsibility for the contracts turned bad.
“The buck stops at the top,” he said.
Good for him. Maybe there is some self-preservation that goes with “the buck stops here” approach, but humility leaves a much better taste than defiance. Yes, it’s important to find out what happened, which hopefully, the House State Affairs Committee will do. But what happens from here is probably more important.
As Otter begins his third term, the failed contracts are like a huge cloud hanging over his administration. There’s more talk about “crony capitalism” than pressing issues such as road repair and education funding. And that’s a shame, because highway maintenance and education funding are foundations for the quality of life in Idaho. I’d submit that most Idahoans couldn’t care less about what Otter knew, and when he knew it, on the contracts.
What’s often missing about the conversation about the broadband contract is the fact that Otter hit a home run by giving rural schools some of the same technology opportunities as the larger schools. Legislative leaders recognize that a settlement of some sort and rebidding will be necessary. If a staff wonk goes to jail for this fiasco, so be it. But ripping out the connections would be at least as devastating as the lack of funding.
Otter did not offer a preview of his State of the State address on Monday, but he doesn’t seem to have ambitious goals. He says that education funding will be above the 2009 levels, which is hardly a cause for celebration. Roads and bridges need repair, but for the moment he’s offering no clues about how to pay for those repairs. Rebuilding “rainy day” funds will carry some priority.
It won’t be a flashy session by any means. But if lawmakers can provide some reform on state contracts, then they will accomplish something useful.