Guest Opinions

Idaho Legislature’s crystal-clear message: Power is ours, voters be damned

McKay Cunningham
McKay Cunningham

In the past three months, the Idaho Legislature has moved to grab power for itself, and done so despite the express will of Idaho voters.

Exhibit A is Proposition 2, the Medicaid expansion measure and voter initiative. For years, the Idaho Legislature refused to expand Medicaid, so Idahoans, on their own, gathered signatures across the state to put the measure on the ballot. Over 60 percent of voters approved expanding Medicaid, thus providing health care coverage to a group of Idahoans who cannot afford medical care on their own.

The new law was immediately challenged in court. Even though procedural flaws should have prevented a ruling on the case, the Idaho Supreme Court bent over backward to address the legal validity of the new law. In a thorough, 26-page opinion, the justices upheld Medicaid expansion and rejected claims that it somehow usurped the Legislature’s power.

Rather than abide by the will of Idaho voters or abide by the ruling of the Supreme Court, the Legislature now seeks to dismantle Medicaid expansion. A bill that has gone through several iterations grabbed national headlines and would (1) require enrollees to work a certain number of hours a month to maintain benefits; (2) demand that enrollees provide information regarding past drug use; and (3) attempt to privatize some insurance coverage available to enrollees. The bill would cost $1.6 million a year to administer and would strip coverage from more than 10,000 Idahoans. By so doing, the Legislature substitutes its will for that of the people.

Legislative willingness to circumvent voters, unfortunately, is not limited to Medicaid expansion. It is also demonstrated by the Legislature’s effort to kill voter initiatives. Currently, a voter initiative requires signatures from 6 percent of registered voters across more than half of the state’s legislative districts in order to get the measure on the ballot. This must be completed within 18 months. Voter initiatives provide a check on legislative power and allow Idahoans to act when politicians won’t.

But a bill and a trailer bill with it would gut voter initiatives. The first bill requires signatures from 10 percent of voters from 32 of Idaho’s 35 districts – all within 180 days. The trailer bill softens this a little, still requiring 10 percent of voters, but over nine months and from voters in two-thirds of the districts. All of this would effectively end the voter initiative process, removing an important check on legislative power.

Some may ask, “So what?” When 80 percent of Idaho’s Legislature is Republican, what’s the harm in giving the Legislature more power, especially when legislators can be voted out of office? First, voter initiatives are critical for those instances when the Legislature won’t act despite the popular will. Second, through redistricting, legislators can protect themselves from being voted out of office.

This precise threat was posed by the House State Affairs Committee in a bill that would have brought gerrymandering back to Idaho. Gerrymandering allows legislators to draw their own voting districts, a process that ensures that those in power remain so. It is a nationwide problem that erodes democracy and one Idahoans banished decades ago. In 1994, through another voter initiative, Idahoans required that an independent commission draw voting districts rather than the Legislature. The proposed bill, however, would have undermined the independence and bipartisan process created and codified by Idaho voters in 1994. Luckily it was pulled from the House and died this session.

These three bills, when viewed together, reveal a disturbing aggrandizement of legislative power, over and beyond the will of the voters. They increase the disconnect that citizens feel between themselves and their representatives. By disregarding citizen initiatives, legislators signal that they think they know better than the people they represent.

McKay Cunningham is an associate professor of law at Concordia University School of Law in Boise. His research interests and publications include gerrymandering, international law, and data privacy and security.