State Politics

Bill to tighten initiative process advances after testimony overwhelmingly against it

Despite overwhelming public opposition, lawmakers are forging ahead with a bill that would make Idaho the toughest state in the nation to get a citizen initiative on the ballot.

The House State Affairs Committee on Tuesday voted 10-5 to send the bill to the House floor with a do-pass recommendation.

During the committee’s nearly 3-hour hearing, 36 people testified — with 32 opposed to the bill.

The Senate on Friday passed the bill by one vote when some Republicans broke rank and joined the Senate’s seven Democrats in opposing the bill in an 18-17 vote.

During the Senate State Affairs Committee two-day hearing held March 11 and March 15, 58 of the 62 people who testified opposed the bill.

What the bill does

The bill’s sponsors and supporters said it improves the initiative process to better reflect rural Idaho and requires any initiative to include a fiscal statement so voters know what they are getting into.

The bill makes four significant changes to the current law to get a citizen initiative or referendum on the ballot by requiring those seeking ballot initiatives to get signatures from 10 percent of registered voters in 32 of Idaho’s 35 districts, compared to the current rules that require signatures from 6 percent of voters in 18 districts; reducing the time allowed to gather the signatures from 18 months to six months; and requiring a fiscal statement indicating how much it will cost to implement the initiative and how it will be funded.

The bill also includes an emergency clause making the legislation effective upon passage.

No changes would be made to the requirements for passage of an initiative in the general election, which is a simple majority.

Eleven Republican lawmakers are sponsoring Senate bill 1159: Sen. C. Scott Grow, Eagle; House Speaker Scott Bedke, Oakley; House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, Star; House Asst. Majority Leader Jason Monks, Nampa; House Majority Caucus Leader Megan Blanksma, Hammett; and Reps. Randy Armstrong, Inkom; Brent Crane, Nampa; Gayann DeMordaunt, Eagle; Sage Dixon, Ponderay; Steven Harris, Meridian; and Wendy Horman, Idaho Falls.

Six of the 11 sponsors are from Ada and Canyon counties, the state’s two most populous counties.

During the House State Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday, among those who spoke against the bill were two former judges.

Former Idaho Court of Appeals Judge Karen Lansing told the committee any initiative that gets on the ballot still has to clear one major hurdle: “No initiative is passed in Idaho without a majority vote of all of the participants in the election. And no person’s vote counts more than another person’s. So, rural voters are not given any less voice than urban voters.”

“This bill would make the initiative process so onerous that it would, as a practical matter, make future citizen initiatives impossible,” Lansing continued. “It would have the effect of repealing a portion of Article III Section 1 of the Idaho Constitution without going through the process to amend the constitution. An amendment of the [Idaho] Constitution would require a vote of the people. To pass it would also give rise, I am sure, to expensive litigation challenging its constitutionality under both the Idaho and United States constitutions.”

Jim Jones, former Chief Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court and former Republican Idaho Attorney General, told the committee: “I think the most important part of our Constitution and the power that it gives the people is the power, the right, to alter, reform or abolish the government whenever they deem appropriate. They cannot do it if they do not have the power to do it.”

Two Republican lawmakers also spoke against the bill, former Senate Majority Leader Rod Beck and current Rep. Priscilla Giddings of White Bird.

Giddings told the committee she has spent the past couple of weeks talking to citizens in rural Idaho communities and they do not support the bill.

Following the committee’s vote to back the bill, Giddings issued a statement:

“Despite what some of my colleagues are saying publicly, this bill does not protect rural voters. It does quite the opposite. By creating the most restrictive initiative process in the country, Senate Bill 1159 chips away at the principles of our Constitutional Republic, it degrades Idaho’s system of checks and balances, and almost entirely shifts the balance of power toward government and away from Idaho grassroots efforts.”

“Passing S1159 will only erode Idahoans’ trust in their state government by directly attacking their century-old constitutional right to redress grievances through the initiative process,” Giddings added. “My colleagues in the House and Senate took an oath to protect our Constitution. Not undermine it.”

Of the four people who supported the bill Tuesday, three are lobbyists: Fred Birnbaum with Idaho Freedom Foundation, Russ Hendricks with Idaho Farm Bureau and Benjamin Kelly with Food Producers of Idaho.

Following the hearing, the 15-member committee rejected motions to send the bill to amending order and to hold it in committee before its final vote to support the bill.

The 10 Republican committee members voting yes were: Reps. Kevin Andrus, Lava Hot Springs; Randy Armstrong, Inkom; Vito Barbieri, Dalton Gardens; Brent Crane, Nampa; Steve Harris, Meridian; James Holtzclaw, Meridian; Jason Monks, Nampa; Joe Palmer, Meridian; Julianne Young, Blackfoot; and Christy Zito, Hammett.

Two Republican committee members, Reps. Linda Hartgen, Twin Falls, and Heather Scott, Blanchard, joined Democratic committee members Reps. John Gannon and Brooke Green of Boise and Elaine Smith of Pocatello in voting against the bill.

The bill now goes to the full House for consideration. If it passes the House, the next stop is Gov. Brad Little’s desk. Little’s office said he is not weighing in on the bill.

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.