Thursday, June 20, 2024

Ballot initiative resolution sent for amendment

by KELCIE MOSELEY-MORRIS / Idaho Capital Sun
| February 2, 2023 1:00 AM

After all but two of about 40 individuals testified Wednesday against its passage, the Senate State Affairs Committee of the Idaho Legislature voted to amend a joint resolution to put a question on the ballot that would change Idaho’s constitutional process for ballot initiatives.

Many others signed up to testify in opposition, but the committee ran out of time to hear them all.

At the end of two hours of public testimony, Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, said as he looked at the language of the resolution, he had “a couple of concerns about it” and thought it should be sent to the amending order, a process where bills often get stuck for the rest of the session.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Doug Okuniewicz, R-Hayden, would ask Idaho voters to approve a change to the state constitution that would require signature gatherers to secure signatures from 6% of registered voters in all 35 of Idaho’s legislative districts to qualify a question for consideration on the ballot before an election. The current threshold is 6% of registered voters in 18 districts, and deadlines for ballot questions are typically months before the election takes place. Reclaim Idaho, an organization that organized a ballot initiative last year to expand education funding, was required to submit its signatures for the November 2022 general election by May 1 to qualify.

The ballot question, if the resolution is passed by the Senate and House of Representatives, would require a simple majority of voters to pass.

Okuniewicz told the committee that the current process sets up “urban versus rural tension” and the change would be inclusive of everyone in the state.

“I believe that in its current form, it is not ready for the floor,” Anthon said of the bill.

The two Democratic members of the committee, Sens. Melissa Wintrow of Boise and James Ruchti of Pocatello, both seemed surprised by the proposed decision and Ruchti asked Anthon to elaborate on his reasons for amending.

Anthon said he would not yield to questions and asked for a vote on the motion. All of the senators but Wintrow voted in favor of amending it.

After the meeting, Ruchti told the Idaho Capital Sun he is preparing for the bill to be debated on the Senate floor in the coming weeks.

“All of us continue to be unsettled by how brazenly legislators move forward with proposals to take away initiative rights,” Reclaim Idaho co-founder Luke Mayville said. “For the committee to vote seven to two to advance a proposal in the face of overwhelming public opposition isn’t necessarily a surprise, but it is deeply disappointing.”

Ballot question includes the same change that Idaho Supreme Court struck down in 2021

The proposed constitutional amendment is the same change that the Legislature attempted to establish through Senate Bill 1110 in 2021, a bill that the Idaho Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional later the same year. Justice Robyn Brody wrote in her concurrence with the decision that the law was not reasonable and workable and said the idea would give every legislative district in the state veto power over a ballot initiative and turn the “perceived fear of ‘tyranny of the majority’ into an actual ‘tyranny of the minority.’”

Okuniewicz said the resolution allows the people to decide whether the new change should be implemented since the Idaho Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature did not have the authority to impose it.

Those who testified against the bill implored legislators to listen when they said the current system is not broken and did not need to be fixed. Several of those who testified were volunteers for Reclaim Idaho when the group gathered signatures for a successful citizens initiative to expand Medicaid in Idaho in 2018. The volunteers said they gathered signatures from as many counties as possible, including many rural areas, and it was difficult enough to secure 6% of the voters from 18 counties.

Anthon and Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, asked those who testified why they were against the idea if it would still be put to the voters to approve. Some said it would require a massive education campaign to help people understand the question, while others said it wasn’t fair for the Legislature to be able to stick the question on the ballot much more easily than volunteers could under the current initiative process.

Mayville said legislators are essentially asking voters to set aside the merits of the bill and not demonstrate how it would benefit the public.

“To send an amendment to the ballot without demonstrating that it serves the public interest is an abdication of responsibility and an abuse of power,” Mayville said.

Idaho resident: Sponsors should do this through their own citizen initiative

Brad Brady, a Navy veteran who lives in eastern Idaho, told the committee in his testimony that he agreed the question should go to the people, but not through the Idaho Legislature.

“I believe the sponsors of this should create a citizens initiative,” Brady said. “If they believe that the Idaho voters want this, instead of doing it through legislation, create a citizens initiative and go through the process like we’ve done.”

Melissa Reilly, a resident of Post Falls, said she was in favor of the resolution because Idaho “needs to be representative of the whole state, not just those funded by Boise, Sandpoint and Moscow.”

“The groups that have already spent over half a million dollars want to have anti-Christian initiatives like the ones they have planned for abortion,” Reilly said. “They should have to try to convince 6% of the region that it’s a good idea.”

Lisa Hecht testified that she was deeply opposed to the bill and said the new arrangement would create more opportunity for rural and urban divides.

“The 35-district requirement … gives one the opportunity to overrule the will of the voters in the other 34, which could include a blocking of rural districts’ initiatives,” Hecht said. “A 35-district requirement would allow city districts to block rural districts.”

Bills sent to the Idaho Senate amending order must be addressed in a separate legislative process during a floor session. It could come up for amendments in the coming weeks of the session.

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