Idaho Supreme Court deems voter initiative bill unconstitutional, strikes new requirements

Reclaim Idaho will campaign over the summer to collect signatures for the Quality Education Act for K-12 Idaho schools. (Photo courtesy of Reclaim Idaho)

By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports

The Idaho Supreme Court issued an opinion Monday ruling that a bill passed by the Idaho Legislature on voter ballot initiatives is unconstitutional. 

The case was brought by Reclaim Idaho, the same group that successfully campaigned to place Medicaid Expansion on the ballot in 2018, and the Committee to Protect and Preserve the Idaho Constitution. The lawsuit asked the Idaho Supreme Court to strike down Senate Bill 1110, which passed during the 2021 legislative session. The bill, which Gov. Brad Little signed in April, increased the number of legislative districts that initiative organizers would need to qualify an initiative. An initiative would need signatures from 6% of registered voters in all 35 districts, rather than 18 districts as previously required. 

Opponents of the bill argued that it would make it virtually impossible to get an initiative on the ballot.

Reclaim Idaho also challenged the constitutionality of another statute, Idaho Code section 34-1813(2)(a), which was amended in 2020 and states that a successful initiative may not become effective earlier than July 1 of the following year, or the start of the state fiscal year. That provision was also ruled unconstitutional.

Michael Gilmore, an Ada County voter, brought a similar petition against the Idaho Secretary of State regarding the bill. 

Justice Gregory Moeller, writing for the majority of the court, dismissed Gilmore’s petition for lack of standing, saying Gilmore failed to assert a “distinct and palpable injury” that is unique to him. However, the court unanimously ruled that Reclaim Idaho and the Committee had standing because they alleged a “particularized injury that is traceable to SB 1110.” 

The opinion states the Secretary of State argues that because there is no urgency for this Court to address the petition, the matter should begin at the district court level. However, SB 1110 contains an emergency clause that put it into effect as soon as the Governor signed it. 

The court’s opinion questioned the constitutionality of the arguments from the Legislature and Secretary of State, stating the state constitution reserves the right for citizens to legislate.

“The SOS and Legislature’s perspective—that the legislature has the authority to limit the people’s initiative and referendum rights, even to the point of near extinction—is simply not supported by the straightforward reservation of a portion of the total legislative power to the people in the Idaho Constitution.”

In the lawsuit, attorneys for Reclaim Idaho wrote, “Over the years, the legislature has exploited its limited power, imposing increasingly byzantine and unreasonable requirements for the proponents of initiatives or referendums to qualify their petitions for the ballot. This campaign of death-by-a-thousand-cuts reached its apotheosis in this 2021 legislative session, when the legislature passed Senate Bill 1110, which contains the most stringent requirements for signature collecting in the nation.”

The Supreme Court’s decision barred both statute changes from taking effect. Idaho’s previous initiative rules are fully restored. 

Additionally, the court unanimously ruled that Reclaim and the Committee, as the prevailing parties, should be awarded their reasonable attorney fees and costs pursuant to the private attorney general doctrine.

In conclusion, the court found the proposed changes “are an unconstitutional infringement on the peoples’ right to legislate independent of the legislature.”

Parties respond

In a statement issued by Reclaim Idaho after the decision, founder Luke Mayville said “Nearly every time in our history that our legislature attempted to eliminate the initiative process, either the governor or the courts stepped up to protect the rights of the people. Today’s decision adds a new chapter to that history, and future generations of Idahoans will look back on the court’s decision with gratitude.”

The Idaho House Republican Caucus also issued a statement after the opinion was publicized. 

“Members of the Idaho House Republican Caucus are disappointed at the Idaho Supreme Court’s decision limiting the voice of rural voters,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke in the written statement. “These changes to the voter referendum/initiative process would’ve served to increase voter involvement and inclusivity, especially in the corners of the state too often forgotten by some. We believe that all the 35 legislative districts, every part of Idaho, should be included in this important process, unfortunately, the Supreme Court apparently disagrees.”

The Quality Education Act

Reclaim Idaho is now working on getting an initiative that they’ve deemed the Quality Education Act on the ballot to further fund K-12 schools in Idaho.

The Division of Financial Management estimated the education initiative could generate an additional $323 million for K-12 schools. 

Should it pass, the initiative would impose a tax on individuals making more than $250,000 a year. They would only pay new taxes on the income they make above $250,000. For married couples, they would only pay new taxes on income above $500,000.

On Monday, Reclaim Idaho issued a press release outlining plans to collect signatures.  If volunteers succeed in collecting 64,945 valid signatures by May 1, 2022, the Quality Education Act will appear on the November 2022 ballot.

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