Volunteers gather petition signatures to add Medicaid expansion onto the November ballot
Reclaim Idaho, the grassroots group responsible for getting the Medicaid expansion initiative on the ballot last year, is now focusing its energy on preserving Idaho’s constitutional citizen-led initiative process.
Concerned that lawmakers will bring back legislation in 2020 that will add stricter requirements for getting a measure on the ballot, Reclaim Idaho over the last month held five town-hall meetings across the state to debate the pros and cons of changing Idaho’s initiative process.
“Specifically, it really boils down to one one question. Should the initiative process be kept as is or should additional restrictions be added to it?” Luke Mayville, Reclaim Idaho founder said Thursday.
“We want to hear real arguments on both sides of the issue,” he said.
The initiative process came under fire during this year’s legislative session when some GOP lawmakers spearheaded an effort to tighten the process in which residents can get an initiative or referendum on the ballot for a statewide vote.
Lawmakers narrowly passed SB 1159, but Gov. Brad Little stepped in and vetoed that bill, saying he was concerned about the bill not being able to withstand a legal challenge. Had SB 1159 become law, Idaho would have had the most onerous ballot initiative requirements in the nation.
Former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones participated in each of the debates, arguing in favor of keeping the current process.
”We have invited people who are on the other side of the issue to speak on that side of the issue, including local legislators who voted for 1159,” Mayville said.
On Aug. 13, at Reclaim Idaho’s town hall in Idaho Falls, seven eastern Idaho Republican legislators participated in the debate, five of whom voted in favor of SB1159 and two who opposed it. About 100 people attended the event, according to the Post Register.
While Idaho Falls had a robust debate with GOP lawmakers explaining their reasons for wanting to tighten the initiative process, no GOP lawmakers agreed to participate in the series’ final event held Thursday in Eagle. That includes the home district of GOP Sen. C. Scott Grow, who carried the now-vetoed bill in the Senate earlier this year.
In addition to Grow, Mayville said District 14 Reps. Mike Moyle and Gayann DeMourdant, both Republicans who also supported the legislation, were invited to participate in the debate.
“Unfortunately, they were not able to make it tonight. But we do think it is really important that we hear real arguments on both sides of the issue,” he said.
Three Boise Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Steve Berch, Sue Chew and Melissa Wintrow, were the only lawmakers to attend the forum, but they did not participate in the debate itself.
With no one to argue in favor of raising the threshold to get an initiative on the ballot, Reclaim Idaho Communications Director Jeremy Gugino agreed to debate Jones.
“Jeremy does not agree with all of the views he is going to express,” Mayville told the audience of about 70 people gathered in the Eagle city library. “But we take this very seriously. We want to hear real arguments on both sides of the issue.”
How Idaho’s initiative process works now
Under the current process, to get an initiative on the ballot, signatures are needed from 18 of the state’s 35 legislative districts. SB 1159 would have raised the number to 32 of 35 districts.
Gugino explained that gathering signatures from 18 legislative districts can easily be accomplished by just going to the state’s five most populous counties, Ada, Bannock, Bonneville, Canyon and Kootenai, which comprise 22 districts.
“Metro urban Idaho holds all the cards when it comes to the ballot initiative process,” he said. “That is why we have to adjust to the times, to give rural Idaho a voice in this process.”
Without that adjustment, Gugino said, rural Idaho is going to lose out on a 107-year-old constitutional right in Idaho.
Jones argued that the residents of Idaho in 1912 saw fit to amend the Constitution to create a process in which the people can have an option if the Legislature is not hearing their voices.
“The initiative allows the people to start a bill and get it up for a vote, and the referendum allows the people to try and get a veto by the people of something the Legislature has passed,” he said.
“I don’t think there is any problem with putting something on the ballot. The people then can go to the ballot box, look at the initiative and decide whether it is good or bad,” Jones said.
Jones also argued that if lawmakers want to change the citizen initiative process, they need to amend the Constitution.
“Send it out to the people on a constitutional amendment and ask them to amend the Constitution,” he said. “But don’t strangle it to death like the Legislature tried to do this last time.”
Cameron Crow, a Reclaim Idaho volunteer from Boise who attended Thursday’s event, told the Statesman he was disappointed Treasure Valley legislators who support changing the initiative process did not come to the town hall.
“If you really believe in something ... you should be willing to come and stand up and defend your position,” he said.
Crow said he thinks tightening the initiative process is not needed because every registered Idaho voter, rural and urban, is already guaranteed to have a say on any initiative that makes it on the ballot.
“It is not everybody’s right to decide if something should be put on the ballot,” he said, “but it is everybody’s right to decide if it should be voted into law.”