State Politics

Idaho lawmakers make last-minute play to salvage controversial citizen initiative bill

UPDATE (March 29): The House has passed two bills altering the initiative process. Click on the link for details.

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With the legislative session clock running out and a GOP bill met with widespread opposition and the threat of litigation, the Idaho House Republican leadership on Thursday threw a Hail Mary in an attempt to win its effort to tighten the citizen initiative process.

But House Democrats called for a penalty on the play, saying it was done secretly and without a public hearing.

The action started to ramp up Tuesday, when the House State Affairs Committee advanced a bill changing the parameters under which a citizen initiative or referendum can get on the ballot. The Senate had already passed the bill, SB 1159, by just one vote.

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

The next day, four former Idaho attorneys general — Republicans Wayne Kidwell, Dave Leroy and Jim Jones and Democrat Tony Park — issued a statement denouncing the bill and calling it possibly unconstitutional.

“Placing unreasonable restrictions on the initiative/referendum process should be looked upon with skepticism,” the statement reads. “After all, the Idaho Constitution clearly specifies that the people have the unfettered right to ‘alter, reform or abolish’ the government ‘whenever they may deem it necessary.’ How can the people possibly exercise that awesome power if the Legislature cuts off practically every reasonable means of doing so?”

The full House was slated to take action on the bill when it convened at 10 a.m. Thursday. But the House immediately went at ease after convening so the House Republican Caucus could meet. A couple of hours later, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, briefly went on the House floor to announce the House would break for lunch and then return at 2:30 p.m.

When the House returned to the floor it had a new bill freshly minted by the House Ways and Means Committee, which had hastily met a half-hour earlier.

The new bill is a trailer bill, which changes two sections in the pending SB 1159. The committee passed it 4-1 without a public hearing. The only Democrat who was able to make it to the quickly called meeting, House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, voted no.

Here’s what changed:

Current law: Citizens have 18 months to collect signatures from 6 percent of registered voters, as of the last general election, from 18 of the state’s 35 legislative districts.

Pending SB 1159: Citizens have 6 months to collect signatures from 10 percent of registered voters from 32 of the 35 districts.

New HB 296: Citizens have 9 months to collect signatures from 10 percent of registered voters in two-thirds of the districts (about 24).

When word got out about the new bill, House GOP leaders went on the defense, issuing a news release stating the new bill was intended to assuage concerns.

“These changes are an effort to address public concerns about overburdening citizens with signature requirements, while preserving the voice of rural Idahoans,” said Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. “We have a legislative responsibility to look at policy to ensure that we are meeting the needs of all Idahoans, and these two pieces of legislation do that.”

House Democrats were not buying that and went on offense.

“The new bill will still significantly restrict the voter initiative process and make it impossible for regular citizens to get issues on the ballot,” the Democrats’ news release states.

“The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee called a meeting just a few hours before it started,” Erpelding explained in the news release. “They created a bill to restrict the initiative process in secret that ran into problems due to public outcry. So a small group of Republicans met, debated the bill in secret, and are now running a new Revenge on Voters bill.”

Erpelding said he argued to either keep the bill in committee or to hold a public hearing so citizens could weigh in.

“This kind of behavior is unlawful and unprecedented,” he said. “Every bill deserves to have a public hearing, especially when it’s on a controversial issue. Our job is to get feedback from the voters and take action accordingly. The [House] majority has completely cut Idahoans out of the process with no shame. They are not even attempting to hide the fact that they are not listening to the voters.”

So what’s next?

The House reconvenes at 9 a.m. Friday.

Moyle told the Statesman on Thursday afternoon that he does not know whether the House will take up the new bill.

“Things are very fluid right now,” he said.

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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.