State Politics

Idaho House approves two contentious options for tightening citizen initiative process

Democratic Boise Rep. Ilana Rubel said she slept well Thursday night even though she anticipated that the Idaho House on Friday would pass a bill she and her Democratic colleagues staunchly oppose.

“I slept like a baby last night because I am very comfortable this [bill] will not find its way into law. No court would uphold this,” Rubel, an attorney, told members of the House while debating against the bill. “This will end up in court. ... If you do not want to see a costly legal battle, please don’t embark further down this path, because that is where it is going.”

“There have been well over 7,000 signatures collected already asking the gentleman on the second floor to veto this,” Rubel continued, referring to Gov. Brad Little. “There is pretty overwhelming public opposition, so I hope you will take that into account.”

But a majority of House members — all Republicans — did not heed Rubel’s advice.

In a complex move, the House on Friday passed not one, but two bills changing the process to get citizen initiatives on the ballot.

Following three hours of contentious debate, the House voted 40-30 to pass SB 1159, which would make Idaho’s process the most stringent among states that have citizen initiatives. Of the 30 “no” votes, 16 were Republicans. No Democrats voted in favor of the bill.

The House then passed in a 47-22 vote a new trailer bill, HB 296, which was hastily printed Thursday. This bill ratchets back some of the changes in SB 1159 but still makes Idaho’s process the most stringent.

Both bills now go to the Senate for action.

The initial bill, SB 1159, passed the Senate by just one vote on March 22.

When the House took up the bill this week, it made a few technical amendments, which now must be approved by the Senate.

If the Senate passes both bills, they would go to the governor. If the Senate does not approve the trailer bill, then SB 1159 will be forwarded to the governor as written.

Here’s what each bill does:

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.

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

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

Flaring tempers, unlikely alliances

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, had his hands full Friday trying to keep both sides maintaining decorum during the contentious debate.

On a couple of occasions he had to remind lawmakers not to “impugn the motives of others.”

“This is an emotional issue and we should school our feelings,” Bedke told the House.

The bill created some unlikely allies, with two of the more conservatives members of the House, Reps. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, and Heather R-Scott, R-Blanchard, joining 12 Democrats to stand and debate against it.

Of the 19 lawmakers who debated the bill on the floor, 14 opposed it.

Rubel told the House that Idahoans put in the state constitution the ability for citizens to bring initiatives and referendums, something usually done when lawmakers are not meeting citizens’ expectations.

“We should expect that they will bring things. ... That is just the way the cookie crumbles,” she said. “That is what is in our constitution. That is why it is there and we have to live with that. And if you do not like that, then you probably should not have sworn an oath to uphold the constitution. Our constitution is not a buffet. You cannot pick which parts you want. This is in there and it must be respected.

“It is totally inappropriate for us to be trying to legislate out a check and balance on our power ... If you don’t like our constitution you should be working to amend it. Put this on the ballot and let a constitutional amendment be voted on. Knock yourself out. ... See how enthusiastic the voters are about taking away their own right to ballot initiatives.”

Giddings echoed Rubel’s statement.

“The problem with [Senate bill] 1159 is we are trying to change the constitution without technically changing the constitution,” Giddings told the House.

The bill’s changes would make “the initiative process the toughest in the country, and therefore you are trying to alter and change the intent of the constitution without changing the constitution,” Giddings said. “That is my personal problem with this legislation because if we are going to do something right, let’s do something the right way. And this is not the right way.”

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, one of five members to speak in support of the bill, claimed that people are reading too much into it.

“I have sat through two, three hours of hearings and now a couple hours on the floor listening to this bill and we are getting far afield of what the bill is intended to do,” he said. “All the bill is intended to do is make sure there’s broad support across the state of Idaho for the initiative process.”

Rep. Randy Armstrong, R-Inkom, pointed out that 24 states do not even have a citizen initiative process.

“If you live in New York, you cannot even do this. I think that they would be surprised to know that we consider it unconstitutional to put a few extra things on there when they don’t even have that process,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong said it is incorrect to characterize Idaho as having the toughest citizen initiative requirements in the country. “That is absolutely not right because we are ahead of 24 states already,” Armstrong said. “We have at least the opportunity for people to say something.”

The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, explained times have changed since the initiative process was enacted in 1933.

“Very few people had cars. We were a less populated state. It was hard to get from one place to another. These days things move a lot more quickly with our electronic means, our vehicles, mass media. There are companies that specialize in getting initiatives on a ballot,” he said. “It has dramatically changed. There is a science and a business that has grown up around the ballot initiative process.”

“We are not taking away the right to vote. We are not taking away the initiative process,” Dixon said during his closing comments. “The initiative process still remains in this bill. What we are trying to do is protect the will of the people.”

How the House voted

All 14 House Democrats voted against SB 1159. Thirteen voted against the trailer bill with one member absent.

Here’s how the 56 Republican members voted:

SB 1159

Yes: Reps. Kevin Andrus, Lava Hot Springs; Randy Armstrong, Inkom; Vito Barbieri, Dalton Gardens; Scott Bedke, Oakley; Megan Blanksma, Hammett; Judy Boyle, Midvale; Greg Chaney, Caldwell; Chad Christensen, Ammon; Gary Collins, Nampa; Brent Crane, Nampa; Thomas Dayley, Boise; Gayann DeMourdant, Eagle; Sage Dixon, Ponderay; Barbara Ehardt, Idaho Falls; Rod Furniss, Rigby; Terry Gestrin, Donnelly; John Green, Post Falls; Steve Harris, Meridian; James Holtzclaw, Meridian; Clark Kauffman, Filer; Ryan Kerby, New Plymouth; Mike Kingsley, Lewiston; Ron Mendive, Coeur d’Alene; Jason Monks, Nampa; Dorothy Moon, Stanley, Mike Moyle, Star; Tammy Nichols, Middleton; Joe Palmer, Meridian; Jerald Raymond, Menan; Doug Ricks, Rexburg; Paul Shepherd, Riggins; Thyra Stevenson, Nezperce; Scott Syme, Caldwell; John Vander Woude, Nampa; Jarom Wagoner, Caldwell; Tony Wisniewski, Post Falls; Julianne Young, Blackfoot; Rick Youngblood, Nampa; Christy Zito, Hammett; Bryan Zollinger, Idaho Falls.

No: Reps. James Addis, Coeur d’Alene; Paul Amador, Coeur d’Alene; Neil Anderson, Blackfoot; Robert Anderst, Nampa; Lance Clow, Twin Falls; Marc Gibbs, Grace; Priscilla Giddings, White Bird; Bill Goesling, Moscow; Linda Hartgen, Twin Falls; Wendy Horman, Idaho Falls; Laurie Likely, Jerome; Gary Marshall, Idaho Falls; Britt Raybould, Rexburg; Heather Scott, Blanchard; Caroline Troy, Genesee; Fred Wood, Burley.

HB 296

Nine Republicans who voted against SB 1159 voted in favor of the trailer bill: Reps. James Addis, Coeur d’Alene; Paul Amador, Coeur d’Alene; Robert Anderst, Nampa; Marc Gibbs, Grace; Wendy Horman, Idaho Falls; Laurie Likely, Jerome; Gary Marshall, Idaho Falls; Britt Raybould, Rexburg.

Eight Republicans voted no on both bills: Neil Anderson, Blackfoot; Lance Clow, Twin Falls; Priscilla Giddings, White Bird; Bill Goesling, Moscow; Linda Hartgen, Twin Falls; Heather Scott, Blanchard; Caroline Troy, Genesee; Fred Wood, Burely.

Rep. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, voted in favor of SB 1159 and against HB 296.

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.