Politicians love to hold forth about the big picture, but when state spending approaches $200 billion every two years, it is just as important to have lawmakers who worry about the little picture and keep an eye out for problems that others may have missed. Otto whacks away at Gordian knots like the state budget and the property appraisal system, which threaten to snarl everything. He’s the Legislature’s premier fiscal watchdog.
The burly accountant is anything but flashy—he has the stolid look of a subject of a Rembrandt portrait—and he frets about problems most of his colleagues don’t even know exist. You could go for years without hearing about the constitutional ceiling on debt—except that this obscure benchmark happens to be one of his foremost concerns. As the chief number cruncher on the House Appropriations Committee, he questioned the Legislature’s increasing reliance on issuing bonds ($9.25 billion in 2007) to pay for purposes ranging from cancer research to building highways. Otto warned that if revenue collections continued to fall short of expectations, the ceiling could be exceeded in 2011, and his fellow House budget writers responded by cutting their reliance on bonds to a level far below the Senate’s.
His biggest achievement of the session was property appraisal reform, a contentious issue that has confounded lawmakers—and the public—for thirty years. One of his proposals would prevent appraisal boards from raising the value of a residence based on nearby commercial development. The best measure of the respect Otto has earned is that his reform package passed the Senate on a calendar that is reserved for uncontested legislation.