Idaho House Republicans Backpedal On Initiative Restrictions Bill

Mar 28, 2019

House Republican leadership is trying to ease up on an embattled bill that would significantly tighten the ballot initiative process in Idaho.

In a committee meeting that was hastily set up, a House committee introduced a new bill on a party line vote Thursday afternoon that would require campaigns to gather the required number of signatures to get an initiative on the ballot in 270 days. That's half the time that is currently allowed by law. The new proposal would also make them get those signatures from two-thirds of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts.

Previously this session, the Senate proposed giving initiative organizers 180 days, which received significant blowback from the public. That proposal also would require signatures from about 90 percent of districts around the state. 

After introducing the new bill Thursday, House Speaker Scott Bedke (R-Oakley) moved it to the House agenda, which prevents it from getting a public hearing where citizens can testify.

Bedke says he supports both the original bill and the altered version because he feels rural voices are drowned out of the initiative process by larger, urban areas.

“Half the state can be left out. I don’t believe that that’s fair on the face of it,” Bedke says.

The slightly less restrictive version, he says, made the rest of House Republicans feel more “comfortable” amid arguments that these changes are unconstitutional.

An opinion from the Idaho Attorney General’s office found that the original proposal “likely” does not violate the state constitution, but that the original 180-day timeframe “could be problematic.”

The original bill barely passed the state Senate last week 18-17 after multiple hearings and an outpouring of opposition from those who testified.

A letter from four former Idaho Attorneys General — Tony Park, Wayne Kidwell, Dave Leroy and Jim Jones — also warned that the issue could be found unconstitutional by a state court. 

"Placing unreasonable restrictions on the initiative/referendum process should be looked upon with skepticism. After all, the Idaho Constitution clearly specifies that the people have the unfettered right to 'alter, reform or abolish' the government 'whenever they may deem it necessary,'" they wrote. 

“I don’t think the bill is fixable,” says House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding (D-Boise). “You can’t put lipstick on a pig.”

He and other Democrats that make up a small number of elected officials in the state have repeatedly rejected these attempts to raise the signature threshold and constrict the amount of time campaigns have to gather them.

Comments from past public hearings on the issue have been overwhelmingly against the proposal. The Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, Food Producers of Idaho and the Idaho Freedom Foundation and one citizen have testified in favor of it over the course of hours of testimony.

The House is expected to take up the two bills Friday.

Negotiations are also ongoing for any sort of changes lawmakers want to make to the Medicaid expansion program.

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee isn't releasing one bill that would add mandatory work requirements for low-income workers, albeit with several categories of people excluded. It would also force those making between 100-138 percent of the federal poverty level to buy their own federally subsidized health insurance from Idaho's exchange.

A District Court judge in Washington, D.C. struck down similar work requirement waivers earlier this week granted by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to Arkansas and Kentucky, news of which richocheted like a lightning bolt during a public hearing on the bill.

Another proposal from Sen. Fred Martin (R-Boise) would involve a voluntary work training program, but he's considering an amendment that would give those on the higher end of the Medicaid eligibility spectrum the chance to stay on a private insurance plan through the exchange.

Speaker Bedke says House and Senate leadership met with Gov. Brad Little (R) Thursday to come to some sort of compromise, but they haven't yet reached a deal.

Some sort of mandatory work requirement would be the House's preference, Bedke says, but the way they've been drawn up so far won't make the final cut. The other point of agreement includes keeping those enrolled in a federally subsidized insurance plan from enrolling in Medicaid. That way, the state wouldn't have to pick up part of the bill.

"I believe there will be a bill that can thread all those needles," he says. "I don't think it exists right this minute."

The Idaho Senate will pick up Martin's bill Friday as well.

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