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Politics & Government

Idaho Senate Committee Backs New Ballot Initiative Restrictions Bill

James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio
Sen. Scott Grow's (R-Eagle) bill would make it significantly harder for a citizens' initiative to get on the Idaho ballot.

The Idaho Senate is moving forward with a bill designed to minimize potential legal challenges to efforts that would make it harder to get a citizen initiative on the ballot.

The Senate State Affairs Committee signed off on the measure Tuesday morning on a party line vote.

Backers of the proposal say it’s an attempt to roll back parts of another controversial bill that’s waiting for the governor’s signature.

The original bill would make Idaho one of the toughest states in the country to qualify an initiative for the ballot. It would shrink the timetable for campaigns to gather signatures from 18 months to six months. Groups would also have to collect those signatures from more than 90 percent of the state’s legislative districts.

But this new measure would still only give campaigns half the time to gather nearly twice the number of signatures than they do now under current law.

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge (R-Huston) says she can’t understand why people don’t think groups couldn’t meet these new benchmarks, if they’re signed into law.

“How did people come across the prairie without any sunglasses looking into the western sun? People thought that that was impossible – impossible to go to the moon,” Lodge says.

ACLU of Idaho has repeatedly testified that this bill – as well as its partner bill that passed both the House and Senate – are unconstitutional.

The latest proposal requires campaigns get enough signatures from two-thirds of the state’s legislative districts. But since some legislative districts grow more quickly than others before they’re balanced out every 10 years, the ACLU says that, at times, gives rural areas a disproportionate voice at the expense of urban voters.

A 2003 decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that Idaho had violated the one-person, one-vote rule when the legislature tried to require campaigns gather the same percentage of signatures from half of the state’s counties – some of which are extremely rural and sparsely populated.

“The state may not … weigh the votes (or signatures) of some voters more heavily than those of others,” the opinion found.

Lawmakers switched the requirement from counties to legislative districts in 2013 – shortly after voters rejected three controversial education laws through a referendum.

Ritchie Eppink, ACLU of Idaho’s legal director, told the committee he thinks the current laws for the initiative process are unconstitutional as well.

When asked by Sen. Steve Vick (R-Dalton Gardens) why his organization hasn’t argued that in court, Eppink responded, “I’ll be very candid. This legislature over the last six years has passed enough unconstitutional legislation that has kept us too busy and we’ve prioritized our efforts on certain other bills that have been unconstitutional and successfully challenged those.”

Everyone who testified Tuesday morning – including the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, which supported the original bill – was against the revised ballot initiative bill.

Sen. Scott Grow (R-Eagle), who sponsored the initial proposal as well, expressed frustration with the continued opposition.

“I find it interesting both houses of our legislature have made an effort to make this initiative process easier and yet no appreciation has been expressed for at least that effort,” Grow says.

The full Senate will take up the issue next.

Reclaim Idaho, the group behind the successful ballot initiative for Medicaid expansion, says it delivered more than 10,000 signatures to Gov. Brad Little (R) asking him to veto both bills.

Marissa Morrison, a spokesperson for Little, says his office received more than 3,800 phone calls and emails on the subject with less than 34 in favor of the bills as of Monday.

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

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