BOISE - Idaho’s dominant Republican establishment appeared headed for a rare rebuke from voters Tuesday, as school-reform measures pushed hard by state schools Superintendent Tom Luna and GOP Gov. Butch Otter trailed at the polls throughout the night.
The three measures, Propositions 1, 2 and 3, became the hottest election issue in Idaho this year, eclipsing even the presidential race - which was a foregone conclusion for Idaho’s four electoral votes in the heavily GOP state that strongly favored Mitt Romney.
Luna called the measures “by far the most important choice on education that many of us will make in our lifetime.”
Otter told The Spokesman-Review on Tuesday night, “We’ll go back, get our heads together in the Legislature, and see where we go from there.”
Idaho voters also weighed in on legislative and local races around the state; it was a good night for incumbent lawmakers in North Idaho.
And two constitutional amendments, one to add a right to hunt, fish or trap to the state Constitution, and another to clarify county probation services, both appeared to be passing easily.
Most controversial of the three school-reform measures was Proposition 3, which rewrote Idaho’s school funding formula to accommodate a big new technology push, including laptop computers for every high school student and a new focus on online learning. The push came after three years of sharp budget cuts for Idaho schools, and Luna promoted it as a new way to spend existing funds.
Teachers, parents, and both Democratic and Republican lawmakers objected; hearings on the bills in 2011 drew huge crowds, nearly all against the measures. But they were pushed through, without a single Democratic vote and with bipartisan opposition; Otter not only signed all three into law, he also signed follow-up bills that added emergency clauses to all three.
The three referendum measures, prompted by petitions each signed by more than 70,000 Idahoans, asked voters if they wanted to keep the laws or not. But for the emergency clauses, the referenda also would have blocked the laws from taking effect until after the election; the clauses in the follow-up bills put them into effect immediately.
That allowed the state to sign a $180 million-plus, eight-year contract two weeks ago with Hewlett-Packard Co. for the new laptop computers; if Proposition 3 fails and repeals the program, the contract will be canceled at no cost to the state.
“If we pull this off, it’s going to be an affirmation of what we’ve believed since the 2011 session,” said Mike Lanza, chairman of the “Vote No on Props 1,2,3” campaign. “The public didn’t buy any of the case that Superintendent Luna made for these laws, and didn’t trust that they were best for our schools.”
A Boise father who hadn’t been active in politics before the referendum campaign, Lanza said, “We’ll be ready to bring everybody together and have a real and honest conversation about what our schools need and how we can make them better. It has to be based on hard data and things that really work, and not just ideology and things that sound good to some people.”
The fight over the school reform measures set a record for campaign spending on ballot measures in Idaho, with the two sides together topping $6.4 million and filling the state’s airwaves with TV and radio commercials for and against the measures, some more factual than others. The biggest contributor to the campaign against the measures was the National Education Association at $2.8 million; the biggest giver in favor of the measures was eastern Idaho millionaire Frank VanderSloot, who reported spending more than $1.6 million.
Proposition 1 curbed teachers’ collective bargaining rights; Proposition 2 imposed a new merit-pay bonus system for teachers, based in part on student test scores.
The three referendum measures were historic for Idaho - the state has only had four such voter-initiated veto measures since statehood, and only one of those, in 1935, succeeded in overturning a law the Legislature had approved, in that case a 2 percent sales tax.
“This is huge for Idaho,” said Jim Weatherby, political scientist emeritus at Boise State University. “We’ve had limited experience with the referendum measures … and these measures are dwarfing everything else on the Idaho ballot.”
Idaho wasn’t alone; nationwide, 12 referendum measures appeared on state ballots, the highest number since 1920. That compares to just one two years ago; two in 2008; four in 2006 and two in 2004.
This year’s referenda included two on gay marriage laws - Washington’s and Maryland’s - and another state, South Dakota, joined Idaho in a voter test of laws rolling back teacher contract rights; that state’s voters overwhelmingly rejected the changes.
“It’s a safety valve for the people,” Weatherby said, “when they feel the Legislature is not being responsive on an issue.”
Gary Moncrief, a Boise State University political scientist who studies elections and state legislatures, said, “I think the reason it is happening maybe a little more than usual is because we’re getting legislatures that are really one-sided. And when you get a united government with a governor and a legislature from one side, then there’s a tendency for them to kind of overreach in terms of policies, on both sides - doesn’t matter if we’re talking Republican or Democrat.”