Initiatives give ordinary people a voice in determining the laws they must live by. Initiatives enable citizens to bypass their state legislature by placing proposed statutes directly on the ballot, especially if, year after year, legislators FAIL to do their jobs. Citizen-led initiatives give a voice to the people who, year after year, have had their efforts stymied, their needs ignored, and their ideas devalued.
However, when this rarely-used process of direct democracy proves more effective than the customary actions of a party, politician, or deep-pocket donors, many legislators in Idaho want to drown out the voices of constituents.
Recent town halls in Coeur d’Alene (July 30) and Sandpoint (July 23) indicate that your right to the initiative process in Idaho is in serious jeopardy.
Twice before, the Republican-dominated Legislature added harsh restrictions to the citizens initiative process to discourage its use: in 1994 after voters passed a term limits initiative, and in 2012 after voters used the initiative to overturn the unpopular Luna laws. (The restrictions on the former were overturned by the Idaho Federal Court as unconstitutional.)
In 2018, citizen volunteers gathered an unprecedented 75,134 signatures in 21 legislative districts to successfully place a Medicaid Expansion measure on the ballot, requiring the state to accept federal funds to extend health care to their fellow Idahoans — benefitting nearly 91,000 low-income residents. Prop 2 was approved across party lines by a clear majority — 61%.
Once again, Idaho’s Republican-led Senate stepped in with SB1159, which would have nearly doubled the signature requirements to place a citizens initiative on the ballot while giving organizers a third of the current collection time to compile them. Had it been enacted, Idaho would have had the strictest citizen initiative requirements in the nation. SB1159 would have increased the necessary number of registered voters from 6% to 10% (from roughly 55,000 to 92,000.) The number of legislative districts required would be increased from 18 to 32 (of a possible 35) while the amount of time allowed to collect signatures would be decreased from 18 months to 180 days.
Four of Idaho’s former Attorneys General (Tony Park, Wayne Kidwell, Dave Leroy, and Jim Jones) warned that the issue could be found unconstitutional by state courts, and admonished legislators that “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.”
Former Idaho Secretary of State, Republican Ben Ysursa, told Eye on Boise, “This bill is a full-frontal assault on the people’s constitutional right of initiative.” Former Idaho Senate majority leader and GOP activist Rod Beck told the House State Affairs Committee, the bill is “not really necessary, and it’s a solution in desperate search of a problem … Idaho’s citizens have sparingly used the initiative and referendum process.”
Former Idaho Attorney General and Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Jones stated: “Some legislators are offended when the people take the law into their own hands. Some think the voters are not smart enough to be able to pass legislation on their own — to second guess the elected representatives. There are often legislative efforts to repeal or redo when the people have spoken through passage of initiatives or referenda. We have seen that with the Medicaid initiative. Now, legislation has been proposed that would kneecap the initiative and referendum process. With passage of that legislation, there would be no more people-initiated laws like Medicaid expansion and no more repeals by referendum like the Luna laws in 2012. The legislation, SB1159, would effectively put a stop to this nonsense of the people being involved in the legislative process.”
Public opinion was also stunningly negative. According to the governor’s press secretary, Marissa Morrison, they received more than 6,100 phone calls, voicemails, emails or letters about SB1159. Of those, roughly 53 people — only 3% — favored it. Hundreds signed up to personally testify against the bill at the Senate State Affairs Committee.
Regardless, 18 Idaho State senators and 41 House representatives supported it.
YES votes included many District 2, 3, and 4 legislators: Sen. Don Cheatham; Sen. Mary Souza; Sen. Steve Vick; Rep. Vito Barbieri; Rep. Ron Mendive; Rep. Tony Wisniewski; Rep. John Green.
67 legislators also supported trailer bill HB296, requiring signatures of 10% of voters in 24 districts to be collected in 270 days.
Both bills were approved and sent to the Republican governor’s desk, with a majority of Republican legislators voting in favor but opposed by all Democrats.
However, shaken by federal court rulings that found these strictures unconstitutional elsewhere, Gov. Little used his veto power. Despite agreeing “with the goals and the vision of SB1159 and HB296, he wrote: “I reluctantly vetoed SB1159 and plan to veto HB296 because I question the constitutional sufficiency of the bills … The bills invite legal challenges.”
According to ACLU Idaho’s 2019 Legislative report, “No less than five hours after Gov. Little’s veto, notice was circulated that Rep. Sage Dixon intended to introduce a new bill to circumvent the veto. He introduced not one, but four bills — essentially breaking each component in SB1159 and HB296 into four separate bills.”
While SB1159 and HB296 were defeated for the short-term, Idaho legislators plan to reintroduce initiative restrictions during the next legislative session. Rebecca Schroeder, executive director of Reclaim Idaho, has stated, “Mark my words: These attacks on our initiative rights are absolutely coming back in the next session.”
The Declaration of Independence asserts that “we the people” have a duty to change a government that is destructive of the people’s rights. The proper response to tyranny is to oppose it with every resource at our command. Please, join me in that effort.
Contact Gov. Little’s office at 208-334-2100 — firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact your legislators and subscribe to their mailing lists: https://legislature.idaho.gov/legislators/whosmylegislator/
Elizabeth Rose is a Hayden resident.