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A Senate bill making it harder for initiatives to be placed on the ballot sparks controversy

Posted at 10:09 PM, Mar 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-15 14:54:13-04

BOISE — A bill that would make it considerably more difficult for Idahoans to get an initiative on the ballot has sparked heated debate at the statehouse.

Proponents say it should be hard to put issues before voters, and that support should be gathered from nearly every corner of Idaho before that happens. But opponents of the bill say the changes will make initiatives too costly for average Idahoans, and they question its timing; specifically, in the wake of a Medicaid expansion bill initiative that was passed by 62 percent of voters in rural and urban counties alike.

Under current law, Idahoans are required to obtain signatures from 6 percent of the voter population in 18 districts, all within the year and a half leading up to an election. Senator C. Scott Grow's bill would change those guidelines, requiring Idahoans to obtain signatures from 10 percent of the voter population in 32 districts, and to do it all within 180 days.

In regards to Medicaid expansion, which is the first initiative to pass here in Idaho in the last six years, it qualified for the ballot in 21 districts--more than it needed in order to qualify.

If Senate Bill 1159 passes, Medicaid expansion would require an additional 11 districts in order for it to be placed on the ballot.

"There is no doubt that this is a punitive bill, designed to retaliate against a successful ballot measure that people didn't agree with in the legislature," said Representative Mathew Erpelding, (D) Boise.

But the leader of the Senate says otherwise. He stated that this bill did not come about because Medicaid expansion passed: "The timing is very unfortunate in my mind. This is something that's been talked about for the last several years," said Senator Brent Hill, (R) Rexburg.

The last time stricter regulations were put in place was in 2013, after Idaho voters repealed the State Superintendent's anti-teacher reform laws. Now, opponents of the bill argue this bill would be too strict and would require 92 percent of the districts to have 10 percent of signatures.

"The argument that it's easier to get volunteers now is flat not true. You can't sign people up on the internet," said Erpelding.

So people have to go knocking in the urban districts where homes are only feet away, but also in the non-urban districts where you won't find people for miles. All that extra legwork costs a lot money. "This way you make it so only millionaires and billionaires can get an initiative because they would be the ones that have the money and the infrastructure to hire the people to get the signatures," said Erpelding.

And proponents say that, while difficult, there needs to be a high threshold to get an issue on the ballot.

"It should be a difficult process. Nobody wants to make it so easy that we're just gonna have all these different things to vote on," said Hill.

Senator Hill said there are already three initiatives that have been filed for the next election, and one of them is an initiative to repeal this bill, if it passes in this legislative session.