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Gov. Brad Little Signs Initiative Restrictions Bill, Court Challenge Expected

Medicaid, medicaid expansion, ilana rubel
James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio

Despite intense public pressure and threats of legal action, Gov. Brad Little has signed a bill making it significantly harder for citizens to get an initiative on the ballot.

The law immediately goes into effect, meaning initiatives hoping to qualify for the 2022 ballot must abide by the new rules.

SB1110 requires campaign organizers to get signatures from 6% of registered voters from each of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts. Prior to the law taking effect, campaigns only had to get signatures from 6% of registered voters from 18 legislative districts.

Little said he recognized signing the bill would be “controversial,” but said the bill’s goal of ensuring initiatives have at least a minimal amount of support across the state was “laudable.”

“Idaho has an important interest in ensuring that our ballots are not cluttered with initiatives that have not demonstrated sufficient grassroots support,” Little wrote in a letter explaining his signature.

In the past 20 years, only five initiatives and three referendums qualified for the ballot. Voters approved two of those initiatives and all three referendums.

Since the adoption of the initiative and referendum process in Idaho in 1912, just 15 initiatives total have been approved by voters.

Little’s signature comes two years after he vetoed two similar bills that would’ve implemented even stricter requirements around ballot initiatives. They would’ve significantly increased the signature requirements and drastically cut the time campaigns had to gather them.

At the time, he said he questioned their constitutionality and worried Idaho’s initiative process would be rewritten by the “liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.”

“I have similar concerns with Senate Bill 1110, but I believe the bill presents a much closer call,” Little wrote Saturday.

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel (D-Boise) tweeted she was “so disappointed he chose only to protect executive power and not the people’s power,” referring to two bills Little vetoed Friday that would’ve restricted executive authority during declared emergencies.

Critics blasted the bill as an attempt to effectively sideline the initiative process in Idaho and make it impossible for citizens to create law outside of the legislature without support from wealthy special interest groups. The new law also applies to referendums, which citizens can file to reject laws passed by the legislature.

But supporters said every corner of Idaho needs to be consulted in the signature gathering process, even though all registered voters would get to weigh in on an issue at the ballot box if it qualified.

Earlier this month, former Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Jones and Reclaim Idaho – the group behind the successful Medicaid expansion initiative in 2018 – delivered 16,000 signatures to Little urging him to veto the bill.

Jones, a former state attorney general, and other Idaho lawyers formed a group in March called the Committee to Protect and Preserve the Idaho Constitution. Its mission is to combat a host of bills they believe to be unconstitutional.

They vowed to “use every legal avenue” to oppose those measures, including SB1110.

“The bill is a direct attack on the bedrock principle of our Constitution – the right of the people to control their government,” the group said in a release announcing its creation.

Freshman Rep. Colin Nash (D-Boise) tweeted, “We’ll see you in court.”

That lawsuit will come from Reclaim Idaho, according to one of the group’s founders, Luke Mayville.

In his transmittal letter, Little recognized the fate of the law was likely still up in the air.

“Whether Senate Bill 1110 amounts to an impermissible restriction in violation of our constitution is highly fact dependent and, ultimately, a question for the Idaho judiciary to decide,” Little wrote.

If that court challenge fails, Reclaim Idaho said it will move forward with its own ballot initiative to counteract the law.

If it qualified for the ballot and voters approved it, the measure would eliminate geographic requirements for signature gathering. Instead, it would simply require any campaign to get signatures equal to 6% of registered voters regardless of where they live in Idaho.

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

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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!