State Politics

Gov. Little faces public opposition to controversial initiative bills. But will he veto?

Idaho Gov. Brad Little has a big decision to make.

Two bills that have been met with overwhelming public opposition are awaiting the new Republican governor’s signature. And many around the state are waiting to see whether he will sign them or use his veto power.

The first bill, SB 1159, changes Idaho’s initiative and referendum process to make it the toughest in the nation. This bill has passed both the House and the Senate and is on Little’s desk awaiting consideration.

The second bill, HB 296, is a trailer bill that modifies the original bill. Republican lawmakers hastily assembled this bill in attempt to salvage the original after it came under fire by former judges, attorneys general and the public.

Because this bill is a trailer bill, it cannot be enacted into law without the original bill being enacted.

The Senate passed the trailer bill late Wednesday morning in a 20-15 vote.

Here’s what the bills do:

  • Current law: Residents have 18 months to collect signatures from 6% of registered voters, as of the last general election, from 18 of the state’s 35 legislative districts.
  • Original bill (SB 1159): Residents have six months to collect signatures from 10% of registered voters from 32 of the 35 districts.
  • Trailer bill (HB 296): Residents have nine months to collect signatures from 10% of registered voters in two-thirds of the districts (about 24).

Little’s choices include signing both bills, which means the requirements in HB 296 become law; sign SB 1159 and veto HB 296, which means the requirements in SB 1159 become law; or veto both bills.

Little has five days, excluding Sundays, to take action on a bill once he receives it. He received SB 1159 late Tuesday afternoon. He has not yet received HB 296.

He has not publicly commented on either bill.

“Gov. Little examines each piece of legislation thoughtfully and individually,” spokeswoman Marissa Morrison told the Statesman on Wednesday. “He will not issue statements on pending legislation during his deliberative process.”

The governor’s office has received 4,644 phone calls and emails since Friday. Of that correspondence, 4,611 asked the governor to veto the initiatives bills and only 33 asked him to sign the legislation, according to Morrison.

Reclaim Idaho, the grass-roots group behind getting the successful Medicaid expansion initiative on the Idaho ballot last year, said it delivered more than 10,000 signatures to Little’s office last week to ask him him to veto both bills.

The organization’s executive director, Rebecca Schroeder, met with Little late Wednesday afternoon and asked him to veto both bills, according to a Reclaim Idaho press release.

“Governor Little and I had a productive discussion,” she said in the release. “I think our priorities are aligned on the most important components of this issue: preserving Idaho values of fairness and transparency and protecting every Idahoan’s constitutional rights ... We understand he has a difficult decision to make and are grateful for the chance to present the views of our volunteers from around the state.”

Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, while debating the trailer bill on Wednesday, told fellow senators not to put a lot of stock in those phone calls, emails and text messages because they could be mass produced.

“My point is just simply telling you that the modern abilities to send this information and have this instant feedback in mass numbers not be interpreted by all of us in our old-fashioned ways, and it may not be accurate from what we have experienced in the past,” she said.

Public overwhelmingly opposed to changing initiative requirements

During the bills’ committee hearings, public testimony overwhelming opposed changing the ballot initiative requirements, saying they are already too onerous.

The final committee hearing took place Tuesday before the Senate State Affairs Committee. During that hearing on the trailer bill, all 25 people who testified said they opposed the bill.

All but one person said they oppose both bills.

Idaho Farm Bureau lobbyist Russ Hendricks said his organization opposes the trailer bill because it supports the stricter original bill.

“Unfortunately HB 296 reverses what SB 1159 has accomplished,” Hendricks said.

Opponents said that even though the trailer bill is not as strict as the original bill, it would still make Idaho the toughest state in the nation to get a citizen-led initiative on the ballot.

Committee Chairwoman Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, said she doesn’t understand why people think the new requirements could not be met.

“I just don’t understand that a group of folks that are really committed to something can’t get that done,” she said. “How did people come across the prairie without any sunglasses looking into the western sun? People thought that that was impossible, impossible to go to the moon.”

Ritchie Eppink, ACLU of Idaho’s legal director, told the committee that not only does he believe SB 1159 and HB 296 are unconstitutional, but he also believes the existing initiative requirements are unconstitutional.

“If you do not think our existing laws are constitutional, why have you not challenged it (in court?),” Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, asked Eppink.

“I will be very candid,” Eppink responded. “This Legislature over the last six years has passed enough unconstitutional legislation that it has kept us too busy. We have prioritized our efforts on certain other bills that have been unconstitutional and successfully challenged those.”

How the Idaho Senate Voted

Here’s how senators voted Wednesday on the trailer bill, HB 296:

YES: Republican Sens. Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa; Kelly Anthon, R-Burley; Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot; Regina Bayer, R-Boise; Van Burtenshaw, R-Terreton; Don Cheatham, R-Post Falls; Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian; Scott Grow, R-Eagle; Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls; Brent Hill, R-Rexburg; Todd Lakey, R-Nampa; Abby Lee, R-Fruitland; Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls; Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston; Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls; Jim Rice, R-Caldwell; Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene; Steven Thayn, R-Emmett; Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens; and Chuck Winder, R-Boise.

No Democrats voted yes.

NO: Republicans Sens. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson; Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville; Jim Guthrie, R-Inkom; Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs; Fred Martin, R-Boise; Dan Johnson (via Ray Mosman), R-Lewiston; Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls; and Jim Woodward, R-Sagle.

Democratic Sens. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise; Maryanne Jordan, D-Boise; Cherie Buckner-Webb (via Yvonne McCoy), D-Boise; David Nelson, D-Moscow; Mark Nye, D-Pocatello; Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum; and Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise.

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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.