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Bill A Setback For Democracy

Some people don’t learn.

How else can you explain why Idaho Rep. Milt Erhart would join hands with the Idaho Farm Bureau to hamstring his state’s initiative process?

Less than a year ago, the Boise Republican watched House Speaker Mike Simpson get browbeat by the media and a disparate coalition of organizations after he tried to tamper with the state’s initiative process. Ultimately, Simpson withdrew a proposed constitutional amendment that would have outlawed game management by initiative.

Now, at the bidding of the Farm Bureau, Erhart has pre-filed House Bill 433, which, if approved, would change the way initiative signatures are gathered. Although innocent on the surface, it would give tremendous power to rural counties and southern Idaho farmers who already are overrepresented in the Idaho Legislature.

The bill would require initiative circulators to obtain the signatures of at least 2 percent of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election - in each of Idaho’s 44 counties. Also, it would limit the number of signatures that can be collected in any county to 15 percent of the total required statewide.

Erhart and his Farm Bureau handlers claim the legislation would force the initiative process out of the shopping malls in Boise and Coeur d’Alene and into the hinterlands. They fear the process is being dominated by the Idaho’s few urban areas and want to even things out - in favor of the rural areas.

The bill effectively would give small rural counties like Clark, population 760, veto power over popular initiatives. Rather than spend hundreds of thousands of dollars campaigning against a measure, opponents could focus a don’t-sign-on campaign in a handful of counties and stop an initiative before it qualifies for the ballot.

A few could thwart the will of the supermajority.

Significantly, Erhart pre-filed his bill, which means it can gather dust in a privileged committee like State Affairs until the helter-skelter final days of the Legislature and then be ramrodded into law. Someone needs to drive a stake through the heart of this wrongheaded bill or at least guarantee that it gets a full hearing early in the legislative session.

The initiative process is difficult enough without tougher requirements.

First, promoters are required to collect a nearly prohibitive number of signatures (in Idaho, 10 percent of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election or around 41,000 signatures) - sometimes while being harassed. Then, they face the scrutiny and expense of a campaign. Only a smattering of initiatives survive those tests, and fewer still are voted into law.

Finally, successful initiatives still can face legislative shenanigans or, particularly those involving social issues, a court test.

The initiative process isn’t perfect, but neither is the legislative one. It enables citizens at the grass-roots level to override legislative inaction. Erhart and his buddies are bucking pure democracy here. They’d be wise to deep-six this one.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = D.F. Oliveria/For the editorial board