Friday, July 28, 2006

Shame on Otter for missing crucial vote

This is yesterday's editorial from the Idaho Statesman, Idaho's largest newspaper.
Idaho Statesman Editorial – 07-27-06

Our View: Shame on Otter for missing crucial vote

Is C.L. "Butch" Otter running for governor, or running from controversy?

The 1st District congressman was a no-show Monday on the most important Idaho public lands vote to hit the House floor in his six years on Capitol Hill. He missed the vote on 2nd District colleague Mike Simpson's bill to protect 312,000 acres of wilderness in Central Idaho's Boulder-White Clouds mountains — which passed, no thanks to Otter.

Two days later, Otter finally took a stand, but only after the Statesman asked. He said he would have opposed Idaho's first wilderness bill in 26 years — but refused to say why.

For a guy who markets himself, rather successfully, as a plain-talking, straight-shooting cowboy congressman, that's weak. Voters deserve some clear like-'em-or-not-answers from the Republican nominee for governor.

Instead, voters will have to settle for a saga of logistics — and a cryptic statement — from Mark Warbis, Otter's spokesman. First, the logistics.

Otter spends most weekends in Idaho and flies back Monday mornings. His itinerary usually puts him back in Washington, D.C., by 4:30 p.m., and allows him to get to the Capitol in time for any recorded votes, which aren't scheduled before 6 p.m.

The Boulder-White Clouds bill — while a milestone for Idaho, and vitally important to communities such as Stanley, Challis and Ketchum — didn't merit a recorded vote. Some lawmakers criticized the bill, but no one demanded a recorded vote, somewhat to Otter's surprise. So on Monday afternoon, the bill passed on a voice vote, while Otter was on a plane.

Otter could have tried harder to be there. He'd booked his Monday flight about a week ago, before Simpson's bill was on the agenda, Warbis said. While Simpson's bill moved quickly — House leadership suspended its normal rules to pass the bill and move it to the Senate — leadership put out word Friday that Simpson's bill was on Monday's agenda. Changing flight plans to vote on an important Idaho issue was hardly out of the question.

So anyway, how would Otter have voted? "I don't know if I have heard a definitive answer on that," Warbis said Wednesday morning.

Five hours later, Warbis issued a less-than-definitive statement from his boss. "Had we followed the normal process with a recorded vote, I would have opposed the Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill," Otter said. "While I admire and respect Congressman Simpson's effort, and it generally reflects great progress over previous wilderness legislation, there are elements of the compromise to which I cannot agree."

Which elements? New wilderness, off-limits to off-roaders, nearly half the size of Ada County? A motorized vehicle trail between the Boulders and the White Clouds? Federal lands that Custer County and Stanley can sell to bolster a slender tax base?

Otter won't say. His chief of staff, Jeff Malmen, listed several of Otter's general concerns last week, including release language for lands that aren't included as wilderness, water rights, and the fate of traditional uses in the area.

On Wednesday, Warbis said Otter has discussed his concerns with Simpson and Sen. Larry Craig, but doesn't want to get into a public debate about a bill that remains a work in progress. But because this is a work in progress, it's precisely the time for an open, public discussion.

Among many tasks, the governor sits on the state Land Board. Otter's Boulder-White Clouds position is an important harbinger of the approach he would take to public lands issues.

Otter is on the wrong side of a solid bill that protects wilderness, helps local governments meet the demands that follow wilderness use and balances competing interests in the Sawtooth Mountains. It's bad enough he didn't fit this vote into his schedule. But his evasive non-answer — to all Idahoans — is offensive.

This week, the man who could be Idaho's next governor has been a no-show, no-tell congressman.

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