Otter Incompetence

Idaho's governor and his staff can't even get the easy things right

Caleb Walsh illustration

Governor Butch Otter's staff's incompetence, too often bordering on corruption, may be the worst-kept secret in Idaho politics. Now it's no longer a secret at all, but a legal fact.

The Idaho Supreme Court ruled last week that Governor Otter failed to properly veto a bill and ordered the Secretary of State to certify it as law. The legislation in question repealed allowing wagering on "historical" horse races. In the spirit of the subject at hand, the governor's office — particularly, it seems, Chief of Staff David Hensley — decided to take a gamble and bet against the state constitution.

It's worth mentioning that vetoing bills is a basic and fairly easy part of the governor's job. Governors have been doing it since the Idaho Constitution was first enacted in 1889.

A veto requires two steps: First, the governor has to actually veto the bill. Second, the governor has to get the bill into the hands of any legislator within the House or Senate (depending on where the bill originated). Both of these steps have to be completed within five days. Until this year's fumbled veto, I can find no record of an Idaho governor having any trouble carrying out this simple procedure.

Governor Otter, by all accounts, managed to complete the first two steps, but not within five days — as explicitly required by the Idaho Constitution. "No matter," the governor's staff apparently decided in a bizarre high-stakes play. "We'll just bluff."

The governor's staff sent the bill along to the Senate with a date and time suggesting that it had been delivered before the deadline. In three letters, entered into the official record, the Senate's top Republican, top Democrat and nonpartisan secretary all explained more politely than I have the patience to that stamping something with an earlier delivery time did not, in fact, cause it to have been delivered at that time.

Never fear! Hensley found another angle and upped the ante. He ran to the press and claimed he handed the vetoed bill to Senator Brent Hill, therefore having met the deadline. While Senator Hill agrees that he was shown the bill, as he stated in the record, he attested that he was not given it. Hill is perhaps best known for his ironclad integrity within the statehouse.

That said, one of the two men has to be lying. You can probably figure out who is the smarter bet. If not, the fact that this line of reasoning was essentially abandoned in arguments before the Supreme Court suggests all you need to know before making your wager.

I'm glad that the Idaho Supreme Court saw through all of this nonsense, calling the arguments presented for the existence of a veto "frivolous" and "disingenuous." I worry, though, that now gambling on "historic" horse races has become a bigger crime than trying to subvert Idaho's Constitution. The morally ambiguous ease with which Governor Otter's staff attempted to cover up their incompetence also leaves me queasy.

Can we count on these same people to follow the Idaho Constitution going forward and carry out their responsibilities honorably? I wouldn't bet on it. ♦

John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, studied at the College of Idaho and currently resides in Seattle. He has been active in protecting the environment, expanding LGBT rights and Idaho's Republican Party politics.

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