By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports
After three hours of testimony, the Senate State Affairs Committee voted to amend a resolution that would ask voters to change the Idaho Constitution to make It more challenging to get an initiative on the ballot.
Sen. Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, made the motion to send the resolution Wednesday to the amending order, but did not offer explanation on what needed to be amended. All but two committee members supported his motion, with Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, and Sen. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, voting no.
Sen. Doug Okuniewicz, R-Hayden, pitched the resolution, SJR 101. The resolution mirrors a bill that Idaho Legislators passed in 2021, SB 1110. After a court challenge, the Idaho Supreme Court deemed the legislation unconstitutional in August 2021. The law would have 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 currently required.
Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, asked Okuniewicz how this resolution is different than the bill that was struck down.
“This will go to the vote of the people,” Okuneiwicz said. “It allows the people to decide.”
Should SJR 101 pass, voters would be asked if they believe the requirement for signatures needed for an initiative should be increased to 6% of registered voters in all 35 districts, rather than 18 districts.
Before voting, the committee heard hours of virtual and in-person testimony, almost all of which was in opposition to the resolution.
Those testifying repeatedly emphasized that it is already hard to get an initiative on the ballot, and said if the resolution passes, and voters approve it, it would be nearly impossible.
Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, asked several people testifying why they were in opposition to the resolution if voters would be allowed to vote on the subject.
Multiple people responded, saying they were concerned voters wouldn’t understand the question on the ballot.
Jeffrey Canfield, of McCall, said it is much easier for the Legislature to get a resolution passed than it is for citizens to get an initiative on the ballot.
“What that misses is the vetting process that’s involved with the initiative process,” Canfield said.
Terri Pickens-Manweiler, who unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in November, argued that the Supreme Court decision made it clear the power should be with the people and the question in the resolution shouldn’t be in the Constitution.
“What you’re doing is usurping the people by putting it in the constitution, so you’ve got two conflicting statements,” Pickens-Manweiler said. “Is it really with the people, or are we going to put something in the constitution that makes it absolutely and virtually impossible to put an initiative on the ballot? That’s what SJR 101 does.”
Other people criticized the language in the bill, saying it was misleading and argued the Legislature was trying to pass the same thing that the court shot down in 2021.
“It would really be more straightforward to say ‘We are amending the Idaho constitution. The initiative process will die henceforth,’” Kay Hummel said in testimony. “This is a do-over and it permanently puts it in our constitution.”
In closing, Okuniewicz disagreed with the criticism of the bill.
“As it stands now, it’s mathematically possible to get the overall 6% figure with over 50% of signatures coming from one district. I’m not saying that happens, but I’m saying that’s how it could work,” he said. “We’re constitutionally authorized, empowered and supposed to run legislation because it’s our job. All were doing is giving the voters a chance to decide.”
Under current Idaho law, it isn’t possible to get half of the required votes from one legislative district; Organizers must get a minimum of 6% from at least 18 different legislative districts.
Senators will consider amendments to the resolution before it moves forward.