Last Friday, the Idaho House of Representatives voted 40-30 to pass Senate Bill 1159, legislation that would essentially revoke our constitutional right to organize citizen ballot initiatives. The bill will move to the governor’s desk sometime this week for either a signature or a veto.
During the floor debate, House Speaker Scott Bedke cautioned critics of the bill about using the word “corruption.” Apparently, it is permissible to use the word to describe historical events, he said, but not to describe present-day Idaho politics.
But the truth is there’s only one word that adequately describes the events unfolding in the Idaho State Legislature, and that word is “corruption.”
Senate Bill 1159 was corrupt from its inception. Just weeks after Senator C. Scott Grow proposed the bill, investigative reporting revealed that Grow worked hand-in-hand with a lobbyist from the predatory payday-loan industry. That same industry was still reeling from an overwhelming vote in Colorado to regulate payday-loan interests in that state. How did that happen? By citizen ballot initiative.
When Idaho citizens showed up in droves to testify against the bill, Senate Republican leadership ridiculed and disrespected them. Senator Patti Anne Lodge attempted to cut off testimony and go right to a vote until a fellow Senator stepped in and stopped her. The only supporters of the anti-initiative bill were paid lobbyists.
Last week, four former Idaho attorneys general came out in opposition to the bill. Former Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa called 1159 “a full frontal assault on the constitutional right of initiative.” Representative Priscilla Giddings, who is arguably Idaho’s most conservative elected official, wrote that 1159 would “essentially repeal our constitutional right to bring citizen initiatives.”
Feeling the heat of public scrutiny, the bill’s supporters went back to the drawing board last Thursday and made a few insignificant changes — lipstick on a pig, if you will. The amended “trailer” bill (House Bill 296), just like the original, would burden Idaho with the most restrictive initiative rules in the country. Worst of all, the amendment process only thickened the fog of corruption surrounding the bill. The House Ways & Means Committee violated House Rules and drafted the amendments in a secret, unannounced meeting with no public input.
It is important to recall that during debate on the Senate floor, Senator Grow urged his fellow senators to ignore the thousands of emails and phone calls they’d received from their constituents. He urged them to set aside the demands of the public — which Grow dismissed as a “vocal minority” — and instead to recognize that the bill is supported by Idaho’s most powerful special-interest groups, including the Idaho Farm Bureau, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, Food Producers of Idaho, the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry — and of course, Grow’s supporters in the payday loan industry. Never mind the fact that nearly two-thirds of Idahoans — and 57 percent of Grow’s district — voted for Medicaid expansion through the ballot initiative process.
Ironically, the initiative process itself was established as a remedy for precisely this type of corruption. Way back in 1912, ordinary Idahoans established the constitutional right of initiative as a check on the business interests, banks, and powerful railroad companies that dominated the Idaho legislature.
Recent events prove that our legislature is once again corrupted by special interests — as much now, perhaps, as any time since the heyday of the robber barons. There has hardly ever been a time when our constitutional right to organize ballot initiatives was more in need of protection.
We must all call on Governor Little to veto Senate bill 1159 and House Bill 296.
Luke Mayville is co-founder of Reclaim Idaho.