Education funding ballot initiative delayed after “premature” start

by Logan Finney, Idaho Reports

(courtesy photo)

After announcing the launch of a new ballot initiative last week, Reclaim Idaho had to backtrack the next day and tell volunteers to pause their signature collection drive.

The organization announced in a press release Thursday that they would begin collecting signatures, but it turns out the initiative wasn’t eligible to be circulated yet because it lacked the fiscal impact statement required by a recently passed law.

Reclaim Idaho’s proposal, which they dub “The Quality Education Act,” would increase the corporate tax rate to historic levels and add a new top tax bracket for Idahoans who earn $250,000 per year and above. Those revenues would be directed into a fund distributed to school districts and charter schools based on attendance and overseen by the State Board of Education.

The legislature made several procedural tweaks to the initiative process since Medicaid expansion passed in 2018. Senate Bill 1350, passed in 2020, added a requirement that ballot initiatives must include a hypothetical funding source as well as a fiscal impact statement prepared by the executive branch’s budgeting agency, the Division of Financial Management. 

“The process continues just as it does now,” Rep. Wendy Horman said last year, “but with better information for citizens to decide to sign or not sign.”

This is the first election cycle where the new requirements are in place.

“In the past that is actually where, once you get the long and short ballot title, you are good to go for circulation,” Reclaim Idaho campaign manager Ashley Prince told Idaho Reports on Friday.

The initiative is Reclaim Idaho’s second attempt to get the proposal on the ballot, after the coronavirus pandemic interrupted the first effort. The organization tried to qualify their 2020 initiative with electronic signatures and sued in federal court to force the state to accept them, but eventually lost that case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Friday, both Prince and Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck told Idaho Reports that the premature announcement was the result of a miscommunication between campaign organizers and state staff. 

“It was an exchange where one of the Secretary of State workers handed us a long and short ballot title, gave us some information about how many signatures you have to get per district, and then basically indicated—at least how I interpreted—that it was good to go,” Prince said. 

Houck said the false start did not trigger Reclaim Idaho’s 18-month signature gathering window. 

“We do expect to receive that document from DFM…at which time it will promptly be forwarded to Reclaim Idaho, along with a written authorization to proceed signed by either the Secretary [or a deputy,]” Houck wrote in an email. “This will become our formal procedure from now on in an effort to eliminate this unfortunate confusion in the future.” 

“Unfortunately, there is an additional step. We’re actually working right now to get word out to all of our volunteers,” said Prince. “We definitely want to make sure that we are within the law and that we do our part correctly.” 

In another wrinkle, the Idaho Capital Sun reported, the Division of Financial Management delivered a fiscal impact statement Monday that was based on an outdated version of the initiative. Reclaim Idaho updated their proposal to reflect income tax bracket changes passed this year in House Bill 380, but the fiscal impact statement from DFM said the initiative would reintroduce the previous brackets.

On Wednesday, DFM administrator Alex Adams told Idaho Reports that his office has 20 business days to prepare a fiscal impact statement after they receive an initiative from the Secretary of State’s office.

“We got [the original initiative] from the Secretary of State on May 14th, so 20 business days from that was Monday this week,” Adams said.

He said that the revised initiative was hand delivered late Tuesday, which directs DFM to generate a new fiscal impact statement.

“Given the nature of the changes,” Adams said, the revision should be ready within a matter of days. “We had already built the model to calculate the first fiscal impact statement, so since most of that work has been done it will be a pretty quick turnaround.”

The legislature also passed House Bill 548 in 2020, which required that initiatives can only address a single subject, and that paid signature gathering must be reported to the Secretary of State.

In contrast to the state’s long standing resistance to allowing electronic initiative signatures, HB 548 also clarified that voters can remove their name from an initiative by electronically submitting a signed statement to their county clerk.

The law also mandated that statewide initiatives cannot go into effect until the start of the state’s new fiscal year on July 1. That rule was motivated in part by the Medicaid expansion initiative, which passed in November 2018 and took effect in January 2020, leaving just the 2019 session for lawmakers to determine funding for the first six months of the program. 

“We ended up going to several different funding sources in order to fund that and it took the process of a year,” then-Sen. Brent Hill said at the time.

The education funding initiative is written to go into effect on January 1, 2023 — six months earlier than is allowed under the effective date law. Reclaim Idaho is asking the Idaho Supreme Court to strike down that provision alongside Senate Bill 1110, which passed during the 2021 session and increased the number of legislative districts necessary to qualify an initiative from 18 to 35. The case is scheduled for a hearing before the Idaho Supreme Court on June 29.

Reclaim Idaho co-founder Luke Mayville is on the Idaho Reports podcast this week to discuss their current lawsuit and upcoming initiative campaigns.

If Reclaim Idaho loses before the Supreme Court and SB 1110 stands, organizers say they will pause the education funding initiative again and campaign for another initiative that would change initiative signature requirements to 6% of registered voters statewide with no geographic consideration.

To qualify for the November 2022 ballot under current state law, initiative organizers must collect signatures from at least 64,945 registered Idaho voters statewide. Those signatures must come from at least six percent of registered voters in each of the state’s 35 legislative districts.

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