- Associated Press - Thursday, October 9, 2014

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) - Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and challenger A.J. Balukoff defined clearly different paths Thursday on same-sex marriage, education and other issues at a gubernatorial debate in Idaho Falls.

Balukoff, a Democrat, criticized his Republican opponent’s handling of the economy, the Post Register (bit.ly/AfKuMk) reported Thursday.

Idaho has the second-highest percentage of minimum-wage workers in the nation and ranks near the bottom in per capita income, Balukoff said. “If Gov. Otter’s record on jobs was made into a movie, it would have to be called, ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Economy,’ ” he said.

Otter countered that the state performed better in household-income statistics because more members of households in Idaho work. The state also did well over the last year in terms of overall economic and personal income growth, he said.

Balukoff, a businessman and the chairman of the Boise School Board, also took issue with education funding. Otter has under-invested in schools, leaving them unable to hire and retain good teachers, Balukoff contended.

“I’ve seen how Gov. Otter has decimated our schools, and it’s a crime,” he said.

But Otter said the state’s education system is actually doing better than it is often portrayed. “Idaho eighth-graders are tied for eighth in the nation in reading and fifteenth in math,” he said.

Otter also said supplemental levies - the property-tax increases approved by voters that fund local schools - give voters more control over their schools’ budgets.

Those choices are made by voters under duress, Balukoff countered. “Their choices were stark: Larger class sizes, let teachers go or tax themselves,” he said.

Gay marriage was another point of opposition. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday made a ruling that declared gay marriage legal in Idaho. But an emergency stay from the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday that was requested by Otter put same-sex weddings on hold.

Otter said he’s upholding his oath to defend the state’s Constitution by continuing the court battle to keep gay marriage banned. Balukoff said the ban is discrimination and violates the U.S. Constitution.

On other topics, Balukoff called for expanding Medicaid, while Otter says he’s concerned about the program remaining sustainable.

Balukoff said that under Otter, Idaho’s marketing plan appears to be tax breaks and cheap labor, while Otter said that businesses started in Idaho are his top priority.

During the debate, each candidate was allowed to put a question to his opponent.

Otter challenged Balukoff to explain where he would come up with the money to pay for pre-kindergarten programs and other initiatives, which he said would cost “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Balukoff said the state has adequate resources to fund the programs, but Otter has proposed dedicating too much to a “rainy day” fund and unspecified tax relief.

“We collect almost $3 billion in taxes,” Balukoff said. “There’s money there to make a bigger investment, a bigger commitment to public education.”

Balukoff challenged Otter to justify his handling of scandals related to the Corrections Corporation of America, which understaffed the state’s largest prison by thousands of hours in violation of its $29 million annual contract. The circumstances surrounding CCA’s contract and how it was handled by the state are under investigation by the FBI.

Otter denied he improperly reached a settlement with CCA before initiating a state investigation. “I purposefully did not involve myself in the negotiations with CCA because I had received money from CCA for my campaign,” he said.

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