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Idaho Lawmaker Tries To Cut Off Testimony Critical Of Citizen Initiative Bill

James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio
Sen. Patti Anne Lodge (R-Huston), left, tried to cut off public testimony Monday morning on a bill making it harder for citizen initiatives to qualify for the ballot. She eventually rescheduled a public hearing on the bill.

Despite an attempt to deny a packed room the ability to testify, an Idaho Senate Committee will continue hearing testimony later this week on a bill that would make it significantly harder for voter initiatives to qualify for the ballot.

After about 45 minutes of public testimony, Sen. Patti Anne Lodge (R- Huston), who chairs the Senate State Affairs Committee, tried to close the hearing to testimony, noting “Everyone else who signed up is against the bill.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder (R-Boise) intervened, saying people are seeing this as “a swat in the face” of the Medicaid expansion initiative that passed by nearly 61 percent last November.

“This is a significant issue and the last thing I think any of us want to do is not act like we listened and not act like we gave it the fair hearing that it deserves,” Winder says.

The proposal from Sen. Scott Grow (R-Eagle) would drastically change the requirements for an initiative or referendum to be put to Idaho voters. It would nearly double the number of signatures a group would need to collect while cutting the time they have to do it by two-thirds.

Right now, campaigns have to gather signatures from six percent of the number of registered voters across 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts. They’d need about 55,000 signatures total to get on the ballot in 2020 under current law.

Grow’s bill bumps that signature threshold up to 10 percent of registered voters in 32 of 35 legislative districts. Groups would also only have 180 days to circulate the petitions instead of 18 months.

The campaigns would also have to figure out a way to fund any initiative – if it’s applicable.

Grow says it “does not seem to be a bridge too far or a standard too high” to meet. Instead, he says it gives rural residents more of a voice in the process and heads off the potential of voters having to weigh in on multiple initiatives each election cycle.

“I don’t wait for a problem to happen and then try to solve it. I try to look forward to the future and avoid problems happening in the first instance.”

“We think [the bill] very clearly is about Medicaid expansion,” says Luke Mayville, one of the co-founders of Reclaim Idaho, the group that spearheaded the effort to get Medicaid expansion on the ballot.

Mayville’s organization was one of the first two to qualify a ballot initiative since 2013 – the most recent time the Idaho legislature clamped down on the initiative process when voters rejected three controversial education laws the prior year.

“This bill is not really a solution to a problem. It sets out to solve a problem that was already solved in 2013 when the laws became much more restrictive,” Mayville says.

Medicaid expansion would not have made it to the ballot under Grow’s proposal, he says, despite turning in nearly 20,000 extra signatures and qualifying an additional three legislative districts than needed.

Reclaim Idaho plans to knock on doors in Grow’s Eagle-area district later this week. They’re also holding a townhall meeting about the bill there Thursday night.

Mayville and five others were the only ones allowed to testify out of a packed auditorium that holds more than 300 people.

Fred Birnbaum, vice president and COO of the Idaho Freedom Foundation and Russ Hendricks, chief lobbyist for the Idaho Farm Bureau, were the only two who testified in support of the bill.

“Our members believe there’s nothing radical or out of line [with the proposal]," Hendricks says. The Idaho Farm Bureau was one of the groups that lobbied for the 2013 rewrite.

Birnbaum, whose organization unsuccessfully sued to block the implementation of Medicaid Expansion late last year, applauded the requirement that each initiative has to outline how it will be funded.

The Senate State Affairs Committee will reconvene the hearing 8:00 a.m. Friday.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

Copyright 2018 Boise State Public Radio

I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season. If you have a tip, please get in touch!