State Politics

Lawmaker’s proposal would make Idaho one of most difficult states for citizen-led initiatives

The process for getting a citizen initiative or referendum on the ballot in Idaho would be among the strictest in the nation under a proposal by Eagle GOP Sen. C. Scott Grow.

Dozens of people opposing the bill turned out Monday morning for a hearing on the bill before the Senate State Affairs Committee. The hearing will continue 8 a.m. Friday at the Statehouse.

The bill comes on the heels of Idahoans approving the Medicaid expansion initiative in November. Prior to that ballot measure, the last time voters approved a citizen-led initiative to make the ballot was a tribal gaming proposal in 2002.

“Some feel this (bill) is an attack on the Medicaid voter initiative. It is not,” Grow told the committee. “Others have expressed concern that this bill will make it too difficult to ever put voter initiatives on the ballot. It will not.”

What is required to get an initiative on the ballot?

Under state law, to get an initiative on an Idaho ballot requires signatures equaling 6 percent of the state’s registered voters as of the last general election. The signatures must come from at least 18 of the state’s 35 legislative districts. Petitioners have 18 months to collect the signatures.

Grow’s proposal would increase the number of registered voters that must sign petitions from 6 percent to 10 percent. The number of districts would increase from 18 to 32. And the amount of time to collect signatures would decrease from 18 months to 180 days, or about 6 months.

The bill also requires initiative proposals “to include a fiscal impact statement and to propose a funding source, thus voters will be informed of any expenses which may be incurred from the passage of a ballot initiative,” Grow said.

No changes would be made to the requirements for passage of an initiative in the general election. “That remains the same,” Grow said. “All it needs is a simple majority of 50 percent plus one vote.”

Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, asked Grow why he felt the need to bring this bill now.

“I am trying to figure out why we need to nearly double the legislative districts in one fell swoop from what we have done prior and to take two-thirds less of the time,” Stennett said. “I am trying to figure out why it is so urgent to change the existing status quo when we have not demonstrated an abundance of trying to do a lot of initiatives and referendums for a century.”

Grow responded that he doesn’t wait for a problem to happen and then try to solve it.

“I try to look forward to the future and avoid problems happening in the first instance,” he said in response. He said he sees other states, such as California, gaining traction when it comes to more and more voter initiatives on ballots. Grow also stated he wanted to ensure Idaho’s rural areas are better included in the process.

How does Idaho’s system compare?

Grow noted 26 states, including Idaho, allow citizen initiatives and referendums. He said the changes he is proposing are already in play in some states.

“Our neighboring state of Nevada has 10 percent (of signatures required), and they require 100 percent of legislative districts. Our neighboring state of Utah has the same percentages we are recommending, 10 percent and 90 percent,” Grow said.

Sandpoint resident Luke Mayville told the committee Grow wasn’t telling the whole story. Mayville is the co-founder Reclaim Idaho, the organization that filed the ballot initiative to expand Medicaid.

“He compared Idaho to a number of other states, but what he did not mention is none of those states has all of the provisions in one that he has proposed,” he said. “Utah is the strictest state currently for getting an initiative on the ballot. Utah, just like Sen. Grow’s bill, requires 10 percent of Utah voters from the last election to sign the ballot initiative and it requires passing the threshold in 90 percent of districts. But, Utah allows 316 days. Sen. Grow’s bill allows only 180 days.”

Grow’s bill would make the process extremely difficult, Mayville continued.

“It would make qualifying a ballot initiative in Idaho more difficult than qualifying a ballot initiative in any of the other 26 states that have the right. By far,” he said.

Following the 2012 defeat of citizen-led referendums to repeal the Students Come First education laws passed by the Idaho Legislature, the next year lawmakers tightened up the process to get an initiative or referendum the ballot.

“The current rules that were passed into law in 2013 were explicitly designed to make the process difficult and amplify the voice of rural voters,” Mayville told the committee. “The system is working. ... In 107 years of Idaho history, only 15 initiatives have passed.”

In the past six years, since the new rules have been in place, only two have made it on the ballot, Mayville said.

Those two were both on the 2018 ballot — the Medicaid expansion, which passed, and a horse-racing-related initiative, which failed.

“This bill sets out to solve a problem that was solved in 2013. This bill is not a solution to a problem at all. Instead it is an extreme restriction on one of the most the most cherished constitutional rights in Idaho,” Mayville concluded.

Tracy Olson made a plea to the committee to uphold citizens’ rights.

“Citizens have a protected constitutional right to initiate laws,” she said. “This bill is not an attempt to expand citizen engagement. It is a poorly disguised attempt to muzzle it.

“I have sat in the Senate State Affairs Committee hearings many times and listened to individuals and legislators discuss protecting individual rights and freedoms that are guaranteed by the state and federal constitutions. I have watched you vote to consistently protect those rights. Idahoans have the constitutional right to bring forth a ballot initiative. I expect you to vigorously protect that right as strongly as you fight for others,” Olson said.

Those testifying in favor

Two people spoke in favor of the bill.

Fred Birnbaum, representing Idaho Freedom Foundation, said his organization supports the bill because it requires adding a fiscal note to ballot initiatives, something he said may have changed voters’ minds during the Medicaid expansion initiative. Additionally, by “tightening up” the signature-collection process, it addresses a “new model” in which out-of-state money can be brought into the state to pay signature gathers.

Idaho Farm Bureau representative Russ Hendricks said the bill “will ensure greater involvement for the citizens of Idaho, particularly in the rural areas,” he said. The bill “does a good job of balancing the urban citizens in the state as well as the rural citizens to ensure there is a good balance before something makes it to the ballot.”

After listening to Birnbaum and Hendricks, Committee Chairwoman Patti Ann Lodge, R-Huston, made note that everyone else signed up to testify is against the bill. Then she began to close the hearing so the committee could debate the bill before it had to adjourn to be on the Senate floor, which had already been delayed by the committee hearing running more than an hour late.

Senate Majority Leader and committee member Chuck Winder, R-Boise, voiced concern about ending the hearing when others were signed up to speak.

“This is a big issue,” he told the committee. “I think the timing of it is unfortunate from a standpoint of people are seeing this as a swat in the face of the initiative that just passed. The Legislature still has not acted upon funding Medicaid funding expansion, even though it came out of JFAC unanimously, 20 to zero.”

“The last thing any of us want to do is not act like we listened and not act like we gave it the fair hearing it deserves,” he said.

The committee agreed to continue the hearing at 8 a.m. Friday.

Idaho Statesman investigative reporter Cynthia Sewell was named Idaho Press Club reporter of the year in 2017 and 2008. A University of Oregon graduate, she joined the Statesman in 2005. Her family has lived in Idaho since the mid-1800s.