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OPINION: An unwelcome primer on Idaho’s one-subject rule for legislative measures

by JIM JONES/Guest Opinion
| August 2, 2023 1:00 AM

Believe me, the last thing I want to do is drive readers to distraction by delving into an obscure and frequently ignored provision of Idaho’s Constitution. Article 3, section 16 of that revered document says that every legislative act “shall embrace but one subject and matters properly connected therewith.” The one-subject rule also applies to initiatives proposed by the people. It means you can’t combine two or more separate subjects into the same proposal. For example, it would clearly violate the one-subject rule for a bill to set both speed limits and property tax rules.

The Legislature does not always pay attention to the one-subject rule but, so long as nobody challenges their failure to comply in court, they get away with it. And violations can be either inadvertent, where nobody gives any thought to the rule, or deliberate, where someone places an unpopular provision in a bill that has broad support. Since every bill can be amended, the deliberate maneuver does not always work so well.

An example of a bill that could either have been inadvertent or deliberate is House Bill 782 in the 2022 session. It tied a stingy pay raise for judges under Title 59 of the Idaho Code to drastic changes in the method of selecting trial and appellate judges under Title 1 of the Code. Lawyers and judges were fearful that the changes would politicize the selection process. Unless those changes were made, the judges would be the only state employees not getting a 7% cost-of-living pay increase. The bill passed but, seeing the havoc it would create for judicial appointments, Gov. Brad Little vetoed it.

I apologize for bringing up this arcane and generally boring provision of the law, but Attorney General Raúl Labrador made me do it. Mr. Labrador has made it a central part of his strategy to oppose the Open Primaries Initiative. Like most other political observers, he must be aware that his only route to the governor’s office is to keep the closed Republican primary in place. It gives a substantial edge to the most extreme candidate, as demonstrated in 2018 when Janice McGeachin won the GOP primary for lieutenant governor over four other more reasonable and pragmatic candidates. Under the plan in the Open Primary Initiative, she and three other candidates would have been on the general election ballot, resulting in the election of a more responsible lieutenant governor.

The 2022 legislative races are also illustrative. Since Republicans win about 80% of legislative races in Idaho, the winner in the Republican primary is usually the general election winner. Dan Foreman won the Senate seat in the GOP primary in District 6 with 2,792 votes, just 8.8% of the registered primary voters. Chris Trakel took the Senate seat from Greg Chaney in District 11 with 1,908 votes from just 9.4% of the registered voters. Brian Lenney took the Senate seat from Jeff Agenbroad in District 13 with 3,162 votes cast by 12.7% of the registered voters. With the Open Primaries Initiative, Senators Jim Woodward, Carl Crabtree, Greg Chaney, Jeff Agenbroad and Jim Patrick, and Reps. Paul Amador, Jim Addis and Scott Syme would likely have retained their seats. They were replaced by extremist GOP candidates.

Despite the fact that the Open Primaries Initiative is wholly consistent with the Idaho Constitution, Labrador has raised a number of specious constitutional arguments against it, including the one-subject rule. Labrador has shown a distaste for reasonably and correctly interpreting the law and has already made it clear that he will distort the law to serve his political ambitions. He is dead wrong on the one-subject rule because the initiative deals with just one-subject elections. Based on his argument, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich would be a two-subject sandwich.

Idahoans need to be conversant with the one-subject rule because Mr. Labrador and other Republicans in the extremist branch of the GOP will be blasting away at the Open Primaries Initiative based on this and other flimsy constitutional grounds. Their sole purpose is to mislead and confuse voters into voting no. If voters arm themselves with the truth, the misinformation campaign will fail.

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Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho Attorney General and 12 years as a justice on the Idaho Supreme Court. He is a regular columnist for The Hill online news. He blogs at JJCommonTater.com.