Idaho Senate backs making ballot measures tougher

BOISE — The Idaho Senate voted today to make it tougher for initiatives or referenda to qualify for the state’s ballot, while saying repeatedly that the move had nothing to do with the successful repeal of “Students Come First” legislation in November.

Under SB 1108, measures wouldn’t qualify unless they had signatures from 6 percent of the voters in each of 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts, rather than just 6 percent statewide, as current law requires. It passed the Idaho Senate on a 25-10 vote; the bill now moves to the House.

“This allows rural Idaho to participate in this process,” said Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton.

In November, Idaho voters rejected Propositions 1, 2 and 3, repealing the “Students Come First” school reform laws that were passed by the Legislature and backed by the governor and state Schools Superintendent Tom Luna. It was the first time Idaho voters had overturned a law passed by the Legislature since 1936.

“There’s a perception that this relates to Props 1, 2 and 3,” said Sen. Curtis McKenzie, R-Nampa, the bill’s lead sponsor. “This doesn’t have anything to do with that. This doesn’t go back in time. … If you had this in place, it wouldn’t have changed that at all.”

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, argued that the bill limits the voice of rural communities, rather than protecting it. Sixteen of Idaho’s legislative districts are within the Boise-Nampa area, the state’s largest population center.

“All of these districts are easily accessible from the Treasure Valley, with a high population density,” she said. A ballot measure that’s supported by that area would need just two other legislative districts’ support to make the ballot.

But a measure backed by people in, for example, rural Bear Lake County, wouldn’t have the same advantage. “Bear Lake organizers will have to reach out to 17 other legislative districts outside of their area,” she said. Even with the support of 30 percent of voters in their region in eastern Idaho, their measure still wouldn’t qualify for the ballot.

McKenzie noted that 12 other states have geographic distribution requirements of some type for ballot measure signatures; Washington is not among them.

“I do think we should look at something that is inclusive of people all across the state,” McKenzie said. He noted that signatures are now being collected for a possible marijuana initiative, and the Idaho Farm Bureau, which brought the bill forward, is worried about possible animal rights initiatives. “These are all issues that would affect every community in the state.”

He also said he fears that Idaho could go the way of California, with numerous ballot measures sponsored by a wealthy few.

Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, noted that California allows voters to amend their state Constitution by initiative – something Idaho doesn’t allow. “We need to be comparing apples to apples,” Bock said. “I can tell you the comparison to California is not apt.”

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, said, “I am very sympathetic to the stated goals of the people who have brought this forward and what they’re trying to do. Unfortunately, I don’t think that this legislation gets us to the point that they would like.”

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