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Eye On Boise

Initiative proposes sweeping changes to Idaho’s campaign finance laws

Holli Woodings (Betsy Russell)
Holli Woodings (Betsy Russell)

Sweeping changes to Idaho’s campaign finance laws are being proposed in a voter initiative, from strict restrictions on campaign contributions from those holding or seeking big state contracts, to banning pricey lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, cutting contribution limits and doubling penalties for violations. Holli Woodings, a former Democratic state lawmaker from Boise and former candidate for Idaho Secretary of State, who is chairing the initiative campaign, says signature gatherers around the state, who just started work early last month, have now gathered the nearly 48,000 signatures necessary to make the November ballot.

But they’re still gathering more, she said, with a goal of going 40 percent over that mark, to compensate for any signatures that aren’t found to be valid, including having the current address for voter registration.

“We’ve put about $100,000 into signature gathering at this point,” Woodings said, with signature-gatherers on the ground in locations including Boise, Kuna, Meridian, Nampa, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho Falls and Pocatello. The last day for signature gathering is April 30; not only does the effort need nearly 48,000 valid signatures, it also must gather signatures from 6 percent of the number of those who voted in the last presidential election in each of 18 legislative districts. “It’s a complicated formula,” Woodings said. “It’s definitely not easy to get something on the ballot.”

Woodings said the effort is being funded by organizations both local and national plus individual donors; she’s not releasing their names yet, but said all will be listed in the group’s first campaign finance report, which is due seven days before the May 17 primary election.

The initiative is one of five being run in states around the nation, in coordination with Every Voice, a Washington, D.C. organization founded about 20 years ago that focuses on campaign finance reform and works to “give everyday people a bigger voice in politics.” Woodings said Idaho’s initiative, developed after polling and outreach about which changes Idahoans want, is most similar to one that’s also being proposed in Arkansas.

“I’ve been both kind of an insider in the political process in Idaho, and also a bit of an outsider in a lot of ways,” Woodings said, “and I’ve really seen how much influence money has in Idaho politics. I’ve always been a big fan of democracy, and I’ve always been more interested in what people think than what monied interests think. And I think there’s a lot of people who feel the same way, and want to see the voices of the people heard in the process. So I kind of joined up with some other folks both nationally and locally who care about the same things, and we decided to run an initiative in Idaho.”

Woodings acknowledges that the proposed changes are big. “It’s the type of reform that you can’t really do in a small way,” she said. Among the proposed changes:

  • Anyone doing business with the state in the past two years, defined as a contract that could over its term come to $250,000 or more, is prohibited from donating to candidates or political committees. The prohibition extends to corporate board members, officers, managers, owners, lobbyists and their spouses or children.
  • All gifts to state lawmakers of more than $50 from a lobbyist in a year, including meals, entertainment and lodging, would be banned.
  • Limits on contributions to candidates and political committees in each election cycle would be cut in half.
  • Penalties for campaign finance violations would more than double; big violations, involving more than $25,000, could bring felony penalties.
  • All campaign finance reports would be required to be submitted electronically, and posted immediately online in machine-readable, sortable form. Also, employers would have to be identified for donors who give more than $50.
  • Idaho would get a “revolving door” law for the first time, banning paid lobbying within one year after leaving a public office or appointed position. Violations would be a felony.

“One of the things I realized as a legislator is that the revolving door is just sort of business as usual,” Woodings said. “Why it should change is because we have people serving in the public interest, you’re there doing your duty as a public servant, and then when you’re done, you can make major financial gain based on that service. So I think there’s a lot of room there for some potentially unethical behavior, or people being there for the wrong reasons – not being there for the public service, but being there to get that big payoff at the end. I just see that as kind of an abuse of power.”

Woodings said people could use their experience in public service in their future private work – just not for one year after leaving the public office. “It just means you’re going to have to take a year off before you do that – or do it as a volunteer,” she said.

If the initiative were to become law, Woodings said it would make Idaho politicians more accountable to the citizens, rather than to big-money interests. “You can’t fund a campaign wholly through large donors,” she said. “You’re going to have to go out there and talk to the voters.”

The restrictions on contributions from state contractors came in direct response to concerns about recent big, failed state contracts in Idaho, Woodings said, and big campaign donations from the firms involved. “We’ve had some issues recently in Idaho with public contractors who do give a large amount of money to elected officials, and then those contractors have been found to not be working in the public interest,” she said. “So that was one in particular that I was really interested in going after.”

Woodings said she’s “optimistic” that the effort will gather enough valid signatures to put the measure on the November ballot, and that Idaho voters will like the idea. “I think once they understand what the initiative does, and that it puts the voice of politics and policy back to the people, I think they will, yeah,” she said. “And we’re going to work as hard as we can to make sure that everyone’s educated on what it does.”

You can see the full initiative online here at the Idaho Secretary of State’s website.

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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