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Idaho Legislature OKs tougher process for getting citizen-led initiatives on ballot

Politics

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BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — The fate of Idaho’s citizen-led initiative process now rests in Gov. Brad Little’s hands.

Idaho House members on Wednesday approved a bill that would make the petition process to place an initiative on the ballot way more challenging. The bill passed in a 51-18 vote, with a few Republicans joining Democrats in opposition.

With the new law, a petition to put an initiative on the ballot would have to include 6% of registered voters in each of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts. Currently, the state requires that signatures come from 6% of voters in at least 18 districts, and 6% of voters statewide.

If Little signs the bill, it would take effect immediately because of an emergency clause — just as activists make an attempt to put a medical marijuana initiative on the 2022 general election ballot.

Little vetoed a similar initiatives bill in 2019, citing concerns about its constitutionality and the fact that court challenges were inevitable.

Proponents of the bill said every legislative district should be involved in the initiative process. Opponents and voting rights advocates said the bill would essentially make it impossible to put a citizen-led initiative on the ballot and violate Idaho Constitution rights.

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said the bill is intended to prevent “the people of Idaho from getting their wishes.”

“If y’all are afraid of what the people of Idaho want to do and what their agenda is, and you feel it’s important to block that, you may be in the wrong line of work,” Rubel said on the House floor.

Reclaim Idaho plans to push for an initiative that would restore Idaho’s previous initiative process. It would require that petitions simply gather signatures from 6% of voters statewide — there would be no district mandate, according to a Reclaim Idaho press release Wednesday.

Idaho has had only two citizen-led initiatives make it on a ballot since 2012. The one that was successful expanded Medicaid coverage, something that supermajority Republicans had steadfastly refused to do.

Rep. Karey Hanks, R-St. Anthony, said the bill was a compromise for her. She said she opposes citizen-led initiatives.

Rep. Colin Nash, D-Boise, compiled election results on ballot initiatives from 1990-2020 broken down by county. He said he doesn’t see a pattern that shows rural voters approve initiatives in the interests of rural areas. Rather, voters support or oppose initiatives in the interests of the entire state, he said.

“I don’t see a need for this,” Nash said. “I don’t know what this is fixing.”

Rep. Jim Addis, R-Coeur d’Alene, who sponsored the bill on the House floor, said it’s appropriate for the state to mandate support throughout the state.

“I do think this is inclusive,” Addis said. “But I also recognize that today’s majority is tomorrow’s minority, and effective policy has to take that into consideration.”

When asked whether he would veto the bill last month, Little pointed to his 2019 veto and said state legislators know about his concerns. Little told the Statesman that he didn’t have input on the drafting of the bill but will keep an open mind.

“We are going to have a dialogue about it,” Little said earlier. “We’ll look at the current makeup of the (9th Circuit Court) and what the ramifications of it are. That’ll all be a part of our calculations.”

The previous version of the bill would have required signatures from 10% of registered voters in 32 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts.

In Little’s veto in April 2019, he said he had concerns about legal challenges to the bill that would leave “the liberal” 9th Circuit of Appeals to decide. Little wrote in a letter to Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin that “a lone federal judge” could then define Idaho’s initiative process, since legal challenges were imminent.

Colorado requires a petition to gather signatures from at least 2% of registered voters in each of its 35 state Senate districts. But the requirement applies only to initiatives that propose constitutional amendments.

In August 2019, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Colorado after its process was challenged in August 2019. The appeals court concluded that “no equal protection problem exists” since the requirement is based on geographic legislative districts drawn up by U.S. Census data.

Both chambers would need to vote on the bill again and approve it with a two-thirds majority vote to override a Little veto, if he decided to do that.

Senators approved the bill in a 26-9 vote.

Luke Mayville, founder of Reclaim Idaho, said the organization will fight to place its initiative — dubbed the Initiative Rights Act — to ease restrictions on the process if necessary.

“The Initiative Rights Act is an insurance policy for the people of Idaho,” Mayville said. “If neither the governor nor the courts decide to protect citizen initiative rights, we believe that Idaho citizens should have the opportunity to take the matter into their own hands.”

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