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Politics & Government

After A Failed Initiative, He’s Now Part Of A Group Lobbying For Strict Referendum Laws In Idaho

Les Bois, historic horse racing
James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio

The face of a failed voter initiative to reinstate historic horse racing in Idaho is now lobbying in favor of a bill that would make it harder for citizens to propose laws and put them on the ballot.

John Sheldon, the former president of Treasure Valley Racing, which operated Les Bois Park, has been advising Sen. Scott Grow (R-Eagle) on his bill to nearly double the number of signatures required to qualify an initiative and cut the time a campaign has to get them by two-thirds.

Ironically, if Grow’s bill passes, campaigns like Sheldon’s former one would be harder to put before voters going forward.

These exchanges came in emails sent between Sheldon and Grow and were obtained through a public records request by Boise State Public Radio.

Two emails sent a few days before the first public hearing on the bill provided a Microsoft Word document titled “BALLOT STATUTE BRIEFING POINTS FOR GROW.” Another email talked about a pending federal court case regarding Colorado’s initiative laws.

A third email sent Feb. 19 – two weeks before Grow’s bill was introduced – Sheldon referenced a lunch meeting with Grow and linked a Wall Street Journal article titled “Voter Initiatives, Including Medicaid Expansion, Could Get Harder to Pass”.

The report details other states’ plans on restricting ballot initiative laws.

The Colorado court case decision was provided on behalf of Sheldon’s client, Moneytree, Inc., a payday loan servicer headquartered in Seattle, he says. Other lobbyists at Sheldon’s firm, SULLIVAN & REBERGER, also handle Moneytree’s account.

Sheldon insists he’s not lobbying on the bill.

“I was just sharing my experience from what we saw in Proposition 1,” he says.

“Having been through it, put a different perspective on it than somebody that hadn’t been through it and Sen. Grow is a new legislator and he was curious of what it was like from somebody that was trying to get one done.”

A request for comment from Moneytree was not immediately returned.

Colorado voters last year gave a thumbs up to a ballot initiative capping yearly interest rates payday lenders could charge and eliminated certain service fees. They approved that initiative by a whopping 77 percent.

Proposition 1 would’ve legalized historic horse racing terminals, which Sheldon and others at Treasure Valley Racing argued would’ve revived Idaho’s live horse racing industry. It failed, only garnering 46 percent of the vote.

But despite having worked hard to campaign for his own ballot initiative, he says he doesn’t have any feelings on the bill.

“I’m out of that business. The ballpark’s closed,” Sheldon says. “Getting the required number of signatures wasn’t very difficult given that we did it in less than three months. It just wasn’t that difficult.”

Treasure Valley Racing’s campaign paid $1.25 million to FieldWorks LLC for signature gatherers and consulting, according to campaign finance records. It was a practice brought up repeatedly by lawmakers during public hearings this week on Grow’s bill.

They say technology and outside money can make it easier for initiatives to get on the ballot, despite the proposal that would make Idaho’s laws among the most restrictive in the country.

“It’s not difficult to get the signatures in three months if you can hire an army of paid signature gatherers,” says Luke Mayville, a co-founder of Reclaim Idaho, which pushed for Proposition 2.

“But if you are going to organize a grassroots signature drive, like the drive that we organized for Medicaid expansion, there’s no way you can do it in three months,” Mayville says.

The Fairness Project backed Idaho’s Medicaid expansion initiative and paid for some signature gathering, chipping in about $500,000.

Another email from state Sen. Jim Woodward (R-Sagle) to Grow suggested there may be further restrictions the legislature is considering to the initiative process.

“It looks to me like we could prohibit payment per signature, especially since the 9th Circuit Court has already ruled on it. This might be a less controversial way to approach the problem next year,” Woodward wrote.

Other lobbying groups, like the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation and Food Producers of Idaho, have publicly testified in support of the bill. They say it’ll ensure rural voters have a fair say in the initiative process.

During a hearing Friday, Grow applauded prior comments made by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder (R-Boise) in defending the work of lobbyists both for and against his bill.

“Just because someone wears a green tag [to identify them as a lobbyist] doesn’t mean they’re a bad, bad person,” Winder says.

Grow responded, “I’ve learned to appreciate their efforts as well.”

After hours of public testimony – nearly all of which was against Grow’s bill – the Senate State Affairs Committee took no action Friday.

Chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge (R-Huston) says she plans on bringing the bill up for a vote in the next two weeks.

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

Copyright 2018 Boise State Public Radio

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