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House OKs bill to make Idaho initiative process tougher

Posted at 1:18 PM, Mar 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-29 15:18:00-04

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The House on Friday approved legislation that would dramatically toughen the requirements to get an initiative or referendum on the Idaho ballot.

The House voted 40-30 to send to Gov. Brad Little the bill that would require those seeking ballot initiatives to get signatures from 10 percent of voters in 32 of Idaho’s 35 districts, compared to current rules that require signatures from 6 percent of voters in 18 districts.

The bill would also cut the time allowed to gather the signatures from 18 months to about six months. Another requirement is that ballot initiatives must contain a fiscal note and possible funding source for the proposed law.

The Senate last week voted 18-17 to approve the bill that has become one of the most contentious measures of the session.

Little’s office on Friday declined to comment on the legislation or his inclinations toward the bill.

The House minutes after passing the first bill passed by a 47-22 vote a second ballots initiatives bill, called a trailer bill, that essentially amends the first bill.

That legislation gives signature collectors 270 days to collect signatures from two-thirds of the legislative districts, and retains the 10 percent threshold.

After the votes, Republican House Speaker Scott Bedke said the plan is for the Senate to also pass the measure and have Little sign both bills. If all that happens, he said, the easier ballot initiative requirements in the trailer bill will replace those in the first bill.

The trailer bill was needed after strong public opposition to the initial legislation caused many Republicans to worry they had gone too far, said Republican Rep. Sage Dixon, who voted for both bills.

On the first bill, backers say the legislation, in general, is needed to give rural voters an equal voice due to information technology and social media that will increasingly allow initiative backers to target growing population centers where groups supporting particular issues live. Supporters say that signatures in just four highly populated areas can get an initiative on the ballot.

“It’s a bill to increase the voice of the people of Idaho, to make sure more of the citizens have a say in creating a law, especially when they’re going around the legislative process,” said Dixon during the debate.

Republican Rep. Heather Scott, who voted against the bill, noted that the demographics of fast-growing Idaho are changing and becoming more like Oregon, Washington and California. In general, like many states, urban areas tend to contain more Democrats, and Idaho’s urban areas are the fastest growing.

“The minority party has worked their tail off to get some things on the ballot,” Scott said. “We as the majority body have every ability to say ‘no.’”

But Scott also blamed lawmakers for not allowing some issues, particularly from her district in northern Idaho, to be debated in the Legislature, leading to ballot initiatives.

Generally, the ballot initiatives bill is considered a reaction by some lawmakers to Medicaid expansion passed by voters in November with 61 percent of the vote following years of inaction by the Idaho legislature. The federal government would pay 90 percent of the cost, but Idaho still has to come up with $20 million and lawmakers have been fighting over how to do that.

Democratic Rep. Brooke Green noted that since 2013 only two initiatives have made it on the ballot, and only one of those passed. She said worrying about future Idaho demographics wasn’t reason enough to limit the possibility of future ballot initiatives.

“We have a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” she said. “A solution that is purely driven by fear of what could come.”

Those opposed to the bill also say the changes will make the Idaho initiative process impossible — except for big-money special interest groups —and remove a method voters have to take action if lawmakers fail to act.

Supporters contend that 24 other states don’t even allow ballot initiatives. But Idaho’s Constitution specifically gives voters the power to put forward ballot initiatives to add or alter laws. Opponents say the legislation violates that Constitution and will trigger lawsuits the state will lose.

Opponents also contend that the tougher requirements would give four legislative districts with just 9 percent of Idaho voters veto power over the entire initiative process.

“That is not democracy, that is not a republic,” said Democratic Rep. John Gannon. “This is tyranny when four legislative districts can prevent a vote.”

Earlier this week, four former Idaho attorney generals came out against the legislation, saying courts might rule it unconstitutional.

Democratic Rep. Jake Ellis touched on that aspect when he argued against the bill.

“Today we stand up and debate how we have to protect the government from the citizens,” he said.

But Republican Rep. Brent Crane said that altering the rules for ballot initiatives made sense because the new rules would better reflect the cost of a possible law and what a majority of Idahoans might want to approve.

“It provides predictability, it provides financial responsibility, and it ensures that there is broad support across the state of Idaho, in all corners of the state of Idaho, that each voice is represented,” he said.