Voter initiative bill latest example of tension between legislature, activists

By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports

Testimony during the House State Affairs committee on Monday sounded familiar to people who have been around the Idaho Legislature for years.

The bill, SB1110, would require citizens seeking to get an initiative on the ballot to collect signatures from all of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts. Current Idaho law only requires signatures from 6 percent of qualified electors in 18 legislative districts.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, and Rep. Jim Addis, R-Coeur d’Alene, does not require Idahoans to gather a larger percentage of signatures, unlike some bills pitched in prior legislative sessions. 

Supporters of the legislation say it would include rural counties in the signature gathering process, giving all Idahoans a voice. Opponents argue it would make the initiative process nearly impossible, challenging voters’ right to propose law.

Sound familiar? It should. This isn’t a new debate between Idaho lawmakers and activists.

A long-standing tension between the legislature and voters

The most recent citizens’ initiative to gain voter approval was on Medicaid Expansion, which received statewide support in 2018. It passed with more than 60 percent of voter approval, and won a majority of votes in 35 of Idaho’s 44 counties.

Also in 2018, voters rejected Proposition 1, which would have legalized instant horse racing gambling machines.

The following legislative session, in 2019, lawmakers came back and tried to make it more challenging to get an initiative on the bill.

Among other issues, the 2019 bill would have required signatures from 10 percent of registered voters in 32 of 35 districts over six months. Another bill would have required signatures from 24 of Idaho’s  legislative districts over nine months.

Both bills were vetoed by Gov. Brad Little, who wrote he was sympathetic to efforts to give more of a voice to rural Idaho, but didn’t think the changes would hold up in court.

That wasn’t the first time Idaho lawmakers have proposed changes to the initiative process after voters successfully changed Idaho statute.

In 1984, two years after voters approved three ballot initiatives (concerning denture fitting, property taxes and nuclear energy) the Legislature attempted to increase the number of required signatures at the urging of timber, mining, and farming stakeholders. Gov. John Evans vetoed the bill. 

The Legislature tried again in 1997, this time tackling the distribution requirement for signatures. That law was struck down after a lawsuit from the Initiatives and Referendum Institute in Federal Court. 

In a 1994 initiative, voters first approved setting term limits for elected officials. It passed with 59 percent of voter approval, according to the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office — and much to the consternation of lawmakers.

As former Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis recalled in a 2016 University of Idaho Law Review article, “At the June 2000 Republican convention, delegates ultimately chose a platform plank that supported the repeal of term limits. Convention delegate Dean Haagenson, former state legislator and the sponsor of the repeal plank, acknowledged “[T]he people have spoken,” referring to the 1994 Initiative. But, then he added, “[t]hey were wrong.””

In 2002, the Idaho Legislature passed a bill repealing the term limits. That bill was vetoed by the then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, but the Legislature overturned the veto with a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. 

Through a 2002 proposition, voters narrowly approved the Legislature’s term limits repeal, which passed by less than 2,000 votes.

After the 2012 general election, in which Idahoans used the ballot initiative process to overturn the Students Come First laws championed by then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, lawmakers passed SB1108, which made it more challenging to get initiatives on the ballot. 

That bill’s statement of purpose said it was meant to “address the balance between urban and rural voters,” similar to Vick’s argument on Monday.

The 2013 legislation passed, setting the current criteria of gathering signatures in at least 18 legislative districts, and was signed into law by then-Gov. Butch Otter.

The current attempt

The 2013 bill made signature gathering difficult, but not impossible. Vick said in Monday’s committee meeting that because some counties have multiple legislative districts, door -knockers could theoretically only go to four counties to get signatures from 18 legislative districts.

The only opposition during Monday’s meeting came from Boise Democrats Rep. John Gannon,  and Rep. Chris Mathias.

“This is a chokehold on democracy,” Gannon said prior to the vote.

Gannon also had concerns that it would be more expensive for citizens to travel to every county collecting signatures.

In a virtual meeting with the Idaho Press Club on Monday, Minority Leader Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, criticized the legislation.

“Make no mistake, this would shut down citizen-driven ballot initiatives,” Rubel told the press corps. “… I do not believe it would be possible to get them onto the ballot under the restrictions imposed (in the bill).”

Melissa Davlin contributed to this report.

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