After nearly three hours of contentious debate, Idaho House lawmakers voted to make it significantly harder to put a citizens’ initiative on the ballot.
State Representatives passed two bills Friday. The first will require campaigns to collect nearly twice as many signatures from across the state – a move championed by supporters who say it will give more of a voice to rural residents.
The second proposal modifies the first bill, loosening the amount of time groups have to gather these signatures from 180 days to 270 days. Right now, Idaho law allows for up to 18 months to get these signatures.
The second measure, which was quickly introduced Thursday afternoon without public testimony, also cuts the number of legislative districts from which these signatures have to be collected to 24 of 35.
Even with that slight rollback, activists against the bills say it will still make it nearly impossible for campaigns to realistically put an initiative before Idaho voters.
“It’s a veritable steeple chase for the citizens – barrier after barrier, hurdle after hurdle – just to enjoy the rights that they have built in their own Constitution,” says Rep. Melissa Wintrow (D-Boise).
Wintrow, along with nearly every Democrat in the House gave impassioned speeches against these bills. Several Republicans joined them in voting against the proposals, but they came up short.
Rep. Priscilla Giddings (R-White Bird) represents some of the most rural parts of Idaho. She says the bill actually degrades Idaho’s system of checks and balances and stifles grassroots efforts that try to take action when the legislature is deadlocked.
“What else do you recommend? I mean, do [citizens] need to just start buying lottery tickets so they can buy off 400 of the lobbyists that run this building,” Giddings asked.
One of the few people who was in favor of the proposals, Rep. Greg Chaney (R-Caldwell), pushed back, saying he doesn’t think anyone in the chamber wants to silence the will of the voters.
“What we’re doing is we’re asking not to silence the voice of the people, but for them to clarify what they mean when they bring us something,” Chaney said, referencing a proposed requirement for campaigns to show how any initiative will be paid for using state money.
Others, like Rep. Steven Harris (R-Meridian), argue it’s a good idea to take the temperature from every corner of Idaho. “This is a proxy of what the voters look like, what they think and let’s get a proxy from all areas of the state,” Harris says.
The original bill will soon go to Gov. Brad Little’s (R) desk for his signature. Little hasn’t made his thoughts public. A spokeswoman didn’t return a request for comment and he told Boise State Public Radio last week that he had not seen the proposal.
More than 7,700 opponents have signed an online petition urging him to veto the measure.
Ultimately, opponents say the issue will be struck down by a judge on the grounds that it’s unconstitutional. An opinion from the Idaho Attorney General’s office says constricting the timeframe for signature gathering “could be problematic,” though that would be slightly increased under the new bill.
“If you pass this, it’s going to go to court for sure and I slept like a baby last night because I’m very comfortable that this will not find its way into law,” says Rep. Ilana Rubel (D-Boise), who’s also an intellectual property lawyer.
State senators could debate the new bill as early as Monday. They narrowly approved the original bill 18-17 last week.
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