Otter may face tough choice: principle or hometown

BOISE, Idaho — A tough choice appears to be looming for Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter: His principles or his hometown rodeo.

A measure to grant an exception that would allow the Caldwell Night Rodeo to serve cocktails is working through the Legislature. Also on tap are two additional proposals to get around Idaho’s strict 1947 liquor license law — one for Driggs in the eastern part of the state, another for the Nez Perce tribe.

In 2008, Otter said his patience was fraying with such “tortured exceptions” expanding where drinks can be served. As an antidote, he proposed an overhaul to shift license control to local governments. “It’s time to draw a line in the sand,” Otter wrote lawmakers that year.

But his plan failed in 2009, leaving intact a system where the rodeo in Caldwell — where Otter grew up, and an event he’s competed in — and others seeking to serve alcohol must do exactly what he lambasted: Go on bended knee to the Capitol to seek a special accommodation.

“It’s for economic development,” said Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, sponsor of the bill that would allow liquor at the rodeo.

“It’s a big thing for our community,” she added.

Hard liquor has long been served at the 78-year-old event. But Idaho’s liquor regulator said last year that was illegal, necessitating this dispensation.

For his part, Otter is mum on whether he’ll act on his 5-year-old threat to help end “the era of specialty licenses.”

“The governor does not comment” on incomplete legislation, said Jon Hanian, his spokesman, last week.

Idaho’s quota system allows a single liquor license for every 1,500 residents in cities.

Consequently, selling booze outside city limits requires legislative indulgence. Dozens of exceptions have emerged over the years, for golf courses, airports and others — some so narrow they border on the absurd.

One, for Hayden Lake’s historic Clark House, is restricted to a hotel at least 75 years old, on a lake with 36,000 acre feet of water — when full.

Idaho’s 70-year-old liquor law, passed two years after World War II when the state had few resorts, also means cities like Driggs with 1,600 residents have just two liquor licenses. Local leaders want more, arguing thousands of visitors to Grand Targhee ski area can hardly find a place to sip a margarita or mojito.

In 2009, however, lawmakers who rejected Otter’s overhaul feared new city- and county-issued licenses would undermine existing state-issued licenses worth hundreds of thousands in places like tony Ketchum, due to limited supply.

And then there’s Idaho’s 1890 Constitution, mandating “the first concern of all good government is the virtue and sobriety of the people.” Some argued changes could lead to profligate boozing.

“They could slip a little something in there, a little nippy in there instead of a happy toy for a Happy Meal,” opined then-Rep. Russ Matthews, R-Idaho Falls.

Last week, Silas Whitman, Nez Perce tribal chairman, said he’d rather not travel “hat in hand” to Boise, just so his group’s new $16 million hotel, convention and casino complex on the Clearwater River can win permission to serve cocktails to visitors.

It’s downright uncomfortable: One lawmaker, GOP Rep. Brent Crane of Nampa, suggested the tribe shouldn’t get a license — because he believed its members had an alcohol problem.

But Whitman has no other choice but to come, since the facility is beyond city limits. “It shouldn’t be incumbent on them,” he said. “We want to exercise sovereignty.”

The tribe’s measure squeaked through the House State Affairs Committee on a 9-7 vote last week and is up for House debate. Freshman Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian, was among foes, arguing perpetuating these specialty licenses provides little incentive to reform a system that picks winners and losers, at the Legislature’s whim.

“Until we stop and say, ‘Enough,’ nobody is going to change the system,” Monks said.

But other lawmakers, including those who experienced the divisive 2009 debate, say that’s easier said than done, since many exemption foes combined four years ago to dump Otter’s overhaul.

“They don’t want it fixed,” says Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake. “You can talk about reform, but when reform is offered to you, you don’t bite.”

In the meantime, the fate of this year’s three measures could hinge on Otter, should they get his desk.

Quoting his political idol in 2008, the governor made his feelings clear, presaging how little times have changed. “To paraphrase Ronald Reagan,” Otter wrote then, after lawmakers sent him three bills, “‘There you go again.’”

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