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Wed., March 6, 2013, 9:07 a.m.

SB 1108, making intiatives, referenda tougher to qualify for ballot, clears Senate panel on party-line vote

SB 1108, the bill to make it tougher to qualify initiatives or referendum measures for the Idaho ballot, has cleared the Senate State Affairs Committee on a party-line vote, with only the panel’s two Democrats objecting. The vote came after three days of hearings, in which testimony was almost all against the bill, which now moves to the full Senate. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, who made the motion to pass the bill, said he worries about initiatives on cannabis and animal rights. Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said in her view, the bill actually removes people’s voices, because once their legislative district has 6 percent, their signatures no longer count – only those from other counties. “In essence you’ve silenced or invalidated that vote in that district … above the cap,” she said.

Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, said, “My rationale in the vote that I’m about to cast is that this is a motive of inclusion, not exclusion, and I realize that we have a difficult process here. At the same time, I also realize that the demographics of the state are such that in order to include appropriately, at least in my view, the voices of a broad cross section of this state, I think that it’s appropriate that we take these steps.”

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, said, “We’re always talking about getting more people involved in the voting process, and I look at this as getting more people across the state involved in the voting process.”

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, noted that Propositions 1, 2 and 3 still would have qualified for the ballot had this law been in effect last year. “If you want a successful referendum, you need to do what this bill provides anyway,” he said.

Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said, “This bill makes it more likely that only highly organized, well-funded groups can afford to participate in Idaho’s initiative process.” He said the bill creates “a huge organizational nightmare” for citizen signature-gatherers, as they collect signatures from people who generally have no idea in which legislative district they live.

Said Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, “It’s certainly not retribution. … I think this is an important policy that Idaho needs to have in place, and I personally think it will stand the test of any kind of litigation going forward.”

Idaho Senate panel OKs new initiative hurdles
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press 

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Agriculture interests and beer distributors scored a victory Wednesday in their bid to raise hurdles for initiative proponents seeking to get measures before voters.

The Senate State Affairs Committee voted 7-2 along party lines with Republicans in favor for the plan requiring signatures be gathered from 6 percent of registered voters in 18 of Idaho's 35 legislative districts to qualify an initiative for the ballot, provided those signatures also equal 6 percent of total voters statewide.

Currently, Idaho requires signatures from 6 percent of voters statewide. There is no geographic requirement, so all names could come from one part of the state, which supporters of the bill say doesn't provide an accurate representation of public opinion on a given issue.

The Idaho Farm Bureau wants these changes to help block groups from pushing animal cruelty initiatives, while the Idaho Beer and Wine Distributors Association supports them on fear that a voter initiative effort to upend Idaho's state liquor store system — as was done in neighboring Washington state's privatization push in 2011 — would place its members at a disadvantage.

Both worry an initiative drive could succeed primarily by collecting signatures mostly from populous Ada and Canyon counties, while neglecting voters in Idaho's rural hinterlands.

"We believe the ballot initiative process should involve as many voters from across the state of Idaho as possible," said Tyler Mallard, a beer and wine distributors lobbyist. The bill "ensures that all the signatures aren't collected in Ada and Canyon county."

The measure now goes to the full Senate.

Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, agreed signature gatherers should be required to fan out across Idaho, not just concentrate on urban areas where it may be easier and quicker to round up registered voters. He said he was convinced backers' motives were establishing good public policy.

"They want the public to participate — statewide," Davis said.

Democratic Sen. Elliot Werk from Boise, predicted expensive voting-rights lawsuits will accompany the measure, which he believes is an effort to marginalize the voices of people who live in cities.

Werk also said the bill would rob true grassroots groups from all regions of Idaho any chance of qualifying their initiatives for the ballot. If the Farm Bureau bill becomes law, he contends, only deep-pocketed, well-organized groups would be able to mobilize a signature gathering force capable of meeting the new requirements.

"By raising the bar, we're telling grassroots people — people from our communities, regardless of where they come from — that this process will be out of reach for them," Werk said.

Back in 1997, a similar law — requiring 6 percent of registered voters in at least 22 counties— was overturned by a federal judge.

Sixteen years later, the Farm Bureau said it was motivated to take another crack, only this time focusing on legislative districts, out of fear that something must be done to avert initiatives such as have been passed by California voters adding requirements for farms on how they treat animals.

"Perhaps there's not been an abuse of the system so far" in Idaho, Farm Bureau lobbyist Russ Hendricks said at Wednesday's hearing. "But our members are familiar with the old adage, 'It's always important to close the barn door before the horse gets out, rather than afterwards.'"

Bert Marley, a lobbyist for the Idaho Education Association that helped defeat Idaho's hotly disputed education overhaul last year, countered many of his members are suspicious that lawmakers have another motivation for favoring these new hurdles to putting initiatives to a vote: As a means of "retribution" against the union for its success on Nov. 6 at the polls.

"Basically, I believe it would crush the voice of the people," Marley said.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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