State senators passed a bill 18-17 that would make Idaho’s citizen initiative process among the most restrictive in the country. The proposal comes just months after a successful initiative that expanded Medicaid eligibility to low-income residents.
Party lines blurred during the debate, with 10 Republicans joining Democrats in opposing the measure.
One major part of the bill would require any group to collect nearly twice as many signatures in just a third of the time they have now. Currently, campaigns have 18 months, but this measure would drop that to six months.
Supporters have argued they don’t want Idaho to be overrun by multiple initiatives each year, citing California as an example.
Sen. Jim Guthrie (R-Inkom) picked apart multiple sections of the bill, saying he doesn’t see an “alarming trajectory” of ballot initiatives. Since 1936, Guthrie says, the voters have weighed in on 30 initiatives and seven referendums.
While the right to a citizens' initiative is enshrined in Idaho's Constitution, the state legislature has the ability to craft and change the rules on how one qualifies for the ballot.
“If it was important enough to put in our state constitution, granting this process to our citizens, it should be a process that is reasonable – not insurmountable,” he says.
But the rallying cry for many legislators focused on raising rural voices in the signature gathering process and requiring campaigns to disclose how any initiative will be paid for.
“This bill requires that they be given some information – short, to the point, independent, so they can look and that it be there for them,” says Sen. Jim Rice (R-Caldwell).
Instead of the current 18 legislative districts, campaigns would need to collect the required number of signatures from 32 out of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts.
Senators Jeff Agenbroad (R-Nampa) and Lori Den Hartog (R-Meridian) both said they liked many provisions of the bill, including requiring a fiscal analysis and boosting the number of districts needed.
But taken in totality, they say the proposal goes too far.
Sen. Scott Grow (R-Eagle), the bill’s main sponsor, urged his colleagues to “ignore” the emails and messages that have included “character assassinations” and those that have questioned their motives for bringing this bill forward.
“Please don’t give sway to a vocal minority who have contacted you on this bill,” Grow said.
Instead, he cited a poll paid for by the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, which has been among a few groups – including the payday loan company Moneytree – that have lobbied in favor of the bill.
The Farm Bureau says their poll of 500 Idaho registered voters found just 22 percent of them thought the current ballot initiative process works well and needed no changes.
Farm Bureau spokesman Sean Ellis would not reveal the methodology of the poll, including how the questions were phrased or the geographical and demographic data of those who were contacted.
But the bill gave heartburn to some lawmakers who felt it was an overreach.
The Idaho House will take up the bill next.
Reclaim Idaho, the group that kickstarted the voter-approved Medicaid expansion initiative, says it will start a petition urging Gov. Brad Little (R) to veto the measure if it’s approved by the House and arrives on his desk.
When asked his position on the bill, Little said Wednesday that he had not seen it.