In their last meeting before Tuesday's election, three men running to be Idaho's governor wasted no time in taking shots at each other's policies and ideas. The debate, hosted by Idaho Public Television, featured incumbent Republican Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, Democrat A.J. Balukoff and Libertarian John Bujak.
Balukoff began the hour-and-a-half back-and-forth by introducing himself as a successful businessman and longtime Boise school trustee. Otter touted his administration’s fiscal responsibility, and Bujak attempted to paint himself as an alternative candidate who would change the way Idaho government works.
By the end of the forum, the three had touched on Idaho’s economy, school funding, the state of its roads and bridges and more.
The debate became heated early when Otter was asked about Corrections Corporation of America. CCA is the Tennessee company that ran Idaho’s largest prison until this year. The contractor was accused of over-billing the state for shifts guards never worked. This year, Idaho settled civil claims for $1 million.
But the governor maintained he had nothing to do with the settlement.
“I was not involved in that settlement,” Otter said. “I purposely removed myself from any part of the negotiations with that settlement because I had received campaign donations from the very company that that contract was under consideration.”
Otter’s top staffers were involved in negotiating the settlement.
Despite the company’s financial ties to the governor’s campaign, Balukoff criticized Otter for not being involved in the process.
“That is the way Governor Otter governs,” Balukoff charged. “He’s absent. He delegated that to someone else. He abdicated his responsibilities as a governor. If your friends or campaign contributors are cheating the state, you’re still the governor and you have the responsibility to hold them responsible.”
Bujak was also critical of the administration's handling of the settlement.
“I think the settlement was premature,” Bujak said. “I don’t think that number is a good number and I would have liked to have seen more investigation before any kind of settlement was struck regarding the private prison.”
In March, the FBI launched a fraud investigation into CCA’s activities in Idaho.
On education, Balukoff again told voters Idaho needs to send more money to public schools. Otter blamed the drop in school spending during his tenure on falling property values during the recession. Bujak says Idaho needs to cut school administrator positions to free up money for classrooms.
At one point, Balukoff attacked Otter on Idaho’s low wages. The governor acknowledged that Idaho has one of the highest shares of people earning the minimum wage, but that household incomes rank higher. Idaho's median household income is still among the bottom third when compared to other states. Otter then connected wages to Idaho’s family values.
“The whole family looks at their position, and they all work to improve that position,” Otter said. “I was raised in a family of nine kids. And there were a lot of jobs that I went out and worked at at the minimum wage. And as a result of that, what happened to the household income?”
When given the chance to respond, Balukoff did so sarcastically.
“Governor Otter, are you recommending that parents put their kids to work to make ends meet?” he asked. “Is that the economic plan?”
Bujak said Idaho should grow its economy by focusing on small businesses, instead of granting big companies tax breaks to bring jobs to the state. It was a dig aimed at practices employed by Otter’s administration.
Then the discussion turned to social issues. Otter said if Idaho lawmakers pass a bill that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation, he would sign it. To date, Idaho’s so-called “Add the Words” campaign has mustered little support in the Legislature.
But Otter again defended his fight against same-sex marriage as a governor simply protecting his state’s constitution. Balukoff said Otter’s dug-in stance is reminiscent of southern politicians who stood in the way of desegregation decades ago. Bujak accused Otter of wasting taxpayer money.
“At this point, the ship has sailed,” Bujak said. “You’re not gonna win that battle in the federal courts. You might as well start arguing about interracial marriage in Idaho at this point. It’s just throwing good money after bad in the courts.”
If you missed the debate, you can watch it here.
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