State Politics

Idaho Senate panel holds ballot initiatives bill, but it might be back soon

Idaho State Capitol.
Idaho State Capitol. Statesman file

Without any discussion, the Senate State Affairs Committee on Friday unanimously voted to hold a bill that would tighten Idaho’s citizen initiative process.

But this does not mean the bill is dead for the session.

In his motion to hold it, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, stated that the public testimony portion of the hearing would be closed and that the bill could be brought back at the discretion of the committee chair, Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston.

Following the hearing, Winder told the Statesman that it’s “likely” the bill will return before the session’s end.

Eagle Republican Sen. C. Scott Grow’s bill, which comes on the heels of Idahoans approving the Medicaid expansion initiative in November, would make the process for getting a citizen initiative or referendum on the ballot in Idaho among the strictest in the nation.

Under state law, placing 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 amount 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. Grow also added an emergency clause making the legislation effective upon passage.

The bill’s first hearing got off to a rocky start on Monday, when the meeting ended with less than 10 of the dozens of people who had signed up getting to speak before the committee. The committee agreed to continue the hearing till Friday.

The committee on Friday listened to two hours of public testimony, during which 54 of the 56 citizens who spoke opposed the bill.

Ranging from college students to octogenarians from across the state, the people who spoke against the bill said it violates the state and U.S. constitutions, restricts democracy, does not reflect Idaho values, and retaliates against citizens successfully passing the Medicaid expansion initiative.

During Monday’s hearing, Grow told the committee why he brought forth the bill:

“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.

Several people who spoke against the bill questioned this reasoning, summarizing that “if it is not broke, why fix it?”

The process to get an initiative or referendum on the ballot is already difficult, with just two getting on the ballot since 2013, the last time the Legislature tightened initiative requirements. Those two were both on the 2018 ballot — the Medicaid expansion, which passed, and a horse racing-related initiative, which failed.

“What is the problem that this legislation is intended to remedy?” asked Jeff Fereday from Boise. “I have heard no problem that this legislation is legitimately designed to remedy. We have heard no convincing case why this legislation is needed.”

Fereday said the legislation “erects such high hurdles, such onerous burdens … that the process itself would be out of reach.”

“That kind of burden on a constitutional entitlement is a prescription for litigation and probably a situation where such legislation would be overturned.”