BOISE– A House committee on Tuesday passed legislation that would dramatically toughen the requirements to get an initiative or referendum on the Idaho ballot.
The House State Affairs Committee voted 10-5 to send to the House the bill that has become some of the most contentious legislation of the session and that opponents say will make the Idaho initiative process impossible.
The Senate narrowly approved the bill 18-17 last week.
The bill would require those seeking ballot initiatives to get signatures from 10 percent of voters in 32 of Idaho’s 35 districts, compared to current rules that require signatures from 6 percent of voters in 18 districts.
The bill would also cut the time allowed to gather the signatures from 18 months to about six months. Another requirement is that ballot initiatives must contain a fiscal note and possible funding source for the proposed law.
Backers say the legislation, in general, is needed to give rural voters an equal voice due to information technology and social media that will increasingly allow initiative backers to target growing population centers where groups supporting particular issues live.
“Rural folks are being left out,” said Republican Rep. Brent Crane. “They’re voices are not being heard.”
Supporters also say that signatures in just four highly populated areas can get an initiative on the ballot.
“Currently, you can go to four counties and get all the signatures you need,” said Republican Rep. Sage Dixon in presenting the bill to the committee. If an initiative “is going to be law – going around elected representation – we should make sure the majority of Idahoans want that to happen.”
Those opposed say the requirements make the initiative process so difficult that it could violate Idaho’s Constitution, which specifically gives voters the power to put forward ballot initiatives to add or alter laws.
“If you make it too hard to get an initiative or referendum on the ballot, their power is essentially pointless,” said Jim Jones, former chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court, in front of the committee.
Opponents also contend that the tougher requirements would give four legislative districts with just 9 percent of Idaho voters veto power over the entire initiative process.
“When you combine all the different restrictions together, that’s a substantially onerous penalty, I believe, on any district,” said Gary Moncrief, a political science professor at Boise State University.
Generally, the bill is considered a reaction by some lawmakers to Medicaid expansion passed by voters in November with 61 percent of the vote following years of inaction by the Idaho Legislature. The federal government would pay 90 percent of the cost, but Idaho still has to come up with $20 million and lawmakers have been fighting over how to do that.
Backers say future initiatives should have financial notes so voters will be aware that the money for potential new laws has to come from someplace.
Republican Rep. Jason Monks, who supported the bill, said the additions would likely make the initiative process harder.
“It’s supposed to be hard,” he said, noting the struggles he’s had in trying to get bills through the Legislature. “When they’re difficult issues, it’s supposed to be a difficult process.”
Democratic Rep. Brook Green, who opposed the bill, said it went too far.
“This is about limiting the opportunity for people to participate and help set the legislative agenda,” she said.
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