BOISE, Idaho — Republican Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter offered begrudging praise Friday for President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus fund, saying it has helped complete highway projects in Idaho, create jobs and reduce the need for state gas tax hikes.
The comments to reporters following the close of the state Legislature appeared to put him at odds with Mitt Romney, who has the Idaho governor's backing for president and who says Obama's $814 million stimulus "didn't create private-sector jobs."
The apparent difference is notable because Otter is the Romney's Idaho campaign chairman; he introduced the former Massachusetts governor at Idaho's March 6 "Super Tuesday" caucus, where Romney beat Rick Santorum.
Back in 2009, Otter lost a fight with Republican lawmakers over raising Idaho's gas tax to fund road work. Otter said Friday the sudden arrival of so much additional federal money that year helped stave off the need for the tax hike, because the Idaho Transportation Department didn't have sufficient staff to oversee projects beyond those covered by the stimulus infusion.
"When we were going through the struggle whether or not we could raise the gasoline tax, whether or not we could add money on to the licenses, about that time, we did come into some of the stimulus money," Otter told reporters. "If we'd have had more money, we simply wouldn't have been able to do as good a job as we did."
The Romney campaign did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Santorum, the former Pennsylvania U.S. senator who trails Romney in the GOP nomination race, has also been critical of the stimulus plan, as has former U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich.
There's debate over whether the stimulus was as effective as it could have been, but it has created jobs — between 1.2 million and 3.7 million full-time-equivalent positions last year alone, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
In Idaho, government agencies and businesses had received $1.49 billion from its total award of $1.73 billion as of Dec. 31, according to the U.S. government.
At its peak between July and September of 2010, the money paid for nearly 9,300 Idaho jobs. That's tapered off, but 1,189 jobs were the result of the package in 2011's last three months, according to the most recent data.
The biggest Idaho beneficiaries have been the private clean-up contractor at the Idaho National Laboratory site, where CH2M Hill WG Idaho received $354 million for work near Idaho Falls, a largely Mormon town considered a Romney stronghold.
Next comes the Idaho Transportation Department, which received $180 million to complete work Otter once hoped to cover with the increased gas and registration fee that died amid the 2009 Republican rebellion.
Idaho school districts have also received tens of millions, shoring up their budgets as Idaho's tax revenue fell by roughly a fifth in three years.
As for the private-sector jobs Romney denies, Otter attended a blade-signing ceremony at a new $500 million wind farm near Hagerman in August 2010, which project owner General Electric said was enabled by a stimulus-funded alternative energy tax break.
Back in February 2009, Otter was "suspicious" of the stimulus. The governor's major worries then were not if Idaho could use the money wisely, but what strings were attached and the programs' impact on the national debt. Those concerns remain, aides said.
On Friday, however, Otter conceded the money arrived in Idaho at an opportune time.
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The Idaho Transportation Department already had regulatory paperwork and engineering work completed on projects, allowing them to quickly qualify for stimulus money. Otter also said his order not to dedicate stimulus money to new programs that would outlast the cash kept Idaho's budget from ballooning out of control.
Romney might be reluctant to hear it, but the GOP frontrunner's highest-ranking Idaho cheerleader concedes the stimulus — "The way we employed it," Otter qualifies — was helpful.
"No question about it," Otter said. "There were some things we got done that we wouldn't have gotten done as quick as we did."