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Resolution on ballot initiatives and referendums passes Senate

by CLARK CORBIN / Idaho Capital Sun
| February 28, 2023 1:05 AM

The Idaho Senate has approved a proposed amendment to the Idaho Constitution that would ask voters whether to increase the threshold to qualify a ballot initiative or referendum.

On Monday, the Idaho Senate voted 27-8 to pass Senate Joint Resolution 101, which would require 6% of voters in all 35 Idaho legislative districts to sign a petition for an initiative or referendum to qualify for election. The current threshold is 6% of voters in 18 legislative districts.

Initiatives and referendums are a form of direct democracy that allow the voters to act independent of the Idaho Legislature.

An initiative is putting a new law in effect, like Idaho voters did with Medicaid expansion.

A referendum is putting an existing law before the voters to repeal or retain, like the Students Come First laws, the so-called Luna laws.

Idaho Supreme Court previously ruled against similar legislation

In August 2021, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled that a previous bill, Senate Bill 1110, that would have also increased the initiative/referendum threshold to 6% of voters in all 35 legislative districts was unconstitutional because it would have made it nearly impossible to bring a ballot initiative or referendum forward. In the ruling, Idaho Supreme Court justices called the initiative and referendum process “fundamental rights reserved to the people of Idaho.”

Sen. Doug Okuniewicz, R-Hayden, said the new Senate Joint Resolution 101 is different from the unconstitutional Senate Bill 1110 because the new resolution is asking voters to increase the threshold themselves, whereas Senate Bill 1110 amounted to the Idaho Legislature imposing the increased threshold on the people.

“SJR 101 … would not eliminate the initiative or referendum process; it only makes it more inclusive for all parts of our state while making it harder for special interests to venue shop during that phase of the initiative process,” Okuniewicz said during his floor debate.

Okuniewicz and other supporters argued Senate Joint Resolution 101 gives more rural voters a say in the initiative process. But opponents argued all voters, including rural voters, get a say on initiatives or referendums when they are on the ballot. Instead, opponents say the new 6% threshold for all 35 legislative districts simply represents an additional roadblock to even reaching the ballot.

Sen. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, said the Idaho Legislature has a long history of restricting the initiative and referendum process.

“When the people use their right, their direct legislative rights, which the constitution allows them, the Legislature doesn’t like it and responds by saying, ‘well let’s make it harder to use,’” Ruchti said on the Senate floor.

In the end, the Republican-controlled Idaho Senate was able to achieve the two-thirds support required to pass the proposed amendment.

Senate Joint Resolution 101 heads next to the Idaho house of Representatives for consideration.

If two-thirds of the members of the Idaho House also vote to pass Senate Joint Resolution 101, the proposed constitutional amendment would appear on the November 2024 general election ballot in Idaho. It would take a simple majority of Idaho voters to approve SJR 101 in the November 2024 general election.

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