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Don't deprive voters of this strength

| February 24, 2021 1:00 AM

Almost lost in the tumult over another legislative effort to emasculate Idaho’s citizen initiative power is this:

The petition-gathering process isn’t the endgame. It’s just a necessary step to ensure every wish and whim doesn’t clutter Idaho ballots and create constitutional chaos.

The endgame is letting citizens decide important issues that they believe legislators have ignored or flat out gotten wrong. Any step to further restrict that ability is a drastic step in the wrong direction of self-governance.

As you know by now (and if you don’t, letters on this page will help highlight key details), Senate Bill 1110 would dramatically raise the bar for anybody to get a citizen-led initiative on the ballot. Idaho already has one of the more restrictive thresholds in the country, requiring verified signatures from 6 percent of registered voters from 18 counties. Essentially doubling that to 6 percent from all 35 counties could render the citizen initiative process extinct.

“The bill is an unconstitutional restriction on the right of the people to control their government,” writes former Idaho Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones. “Article One of the Idaho Constitution solemnly proclaims that ‘all political power is inherent in the people.’ It states that the people ‘have the right to alter, reform or abolish’ the state government ‘whenever they may deem it necessary.’ How can the people possibly exercise that awesome power if they have to go through a power-hungry legislature in every instance?”

Opponents of the bill are justified in claiming the change would benefit not just a defiant legislature, but well-funded organizations able to pay for legions of signature-gatherers and expensive PR campaigns. Grassroots, truly citizen-led groups like Reclaim Idaho, the one that led to Medicaid expansion, would have no chance to get the question on a ballot, let alone try to persuade voters of the merits in their cause.

A similar attempt to short-circuit citizen power was thwarted via Gov. Brad Little veto two years ago, though not entirely for the reasons many opponents of this rendition of the bill hold dear. In spring 2019, Gov. Little vetoed two initiative-related bills even though he said he agreed “with the goals and the vision” of them.

“I reluctantly vetoed S 1159 and plan to veto H 296 because I question the constitutional sufficiency of the bills and the unintended consequences of their passage,” he said in April that year. “The bills invite legal challenges that likely will result in the Idaho initiative process being determined by the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — the same Circuit that recently decided Idaho should pay for gender reassignment surgery for a transgender inmate serving time for molesting a child. We need to do all we can to control the rules of our initiative process.”

We hold out scant hope that a majority of legislators will spare the guillotine to the voter initiative process, though it has proven more than adequate as is for many years. We echo former Coeur d’Alene legislator Mary Lou Reed’s call for Gov. Little to veto SB 1110 — even if his reasons vary from others’.