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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho governor signs bill tightening initiative rules

BOISE – It soon will be tougher to get an initiative onto the Idaho ballot.

Barely five months after Idaho voters took to the ballot box to scrap the Legislature’s controversial Students Come First school reform laws, Gov. Butch Otter signed legislation Monday adding new requirements for qualifying citizen initiatives and referendum measures for a statewide ballot.

“I thought it was the right thing to do,” Otter said of his decision to sign Senate Bill 1108 into law. “I agreed with the arguments that it’s an issue for all of Idaho – why shouldn’t all of Idaho be included in it?”

Under current law in Idaho, it takes signatures from 6 percent of registered voters to qualify a measure for the ballot; SB 1108 adds a requirement for 6 percent of the registered voters in each of 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts. The Idaho Farm Bureau Federation pushed the bill, saying it would preserve the voice of rural areas if animal-rights activists decided to run ballot-measure campaigns.

The bill followed November’s historic voter rejection of Students Come First in three referendum measures, the first time since 1936 that Idaho voters have overturned laws passed by the Legislature through a referendum vote. Initiatives have proved only slightly more popular in Idaho; 14 have passed since statehood.

Otter said he didn’t want ballot measures to be driven by “the great state of Ada,” referring to Ada County, home of Boise and the state Capitol, and the state’s largest population center. “We’re a government for all of Idaho,” he said. “I think if the initiative has enough support from all over the state, you could get signatures from all over the state.”

Meanwhile, a follow-up bill from Secretary of State Ben Ysursa would ease the burden the new law would otherwise place on initiative signature-gatherers by not requiring them to juggle three separate clipboards and petitions in Kootenai County – where there are three legislative districts – and not requiring voters to know their legislative district to sign, under penalty of law. Ysursa, who was neutral on the original bill, said it’s already plenty hard to qualify a ballot measure in Idaho.

“We knew the bill was going to pass,” he said, and he wanted to “make it a little less onerous on the circulators.”

Ysursa said he wrote his follow-up bill, SB 1191, after seeing Montana’s initiative petition form, which requires county clerks to look up and verify the legislative district of signers, rather than requiring petition circulators and the signer to properly identify that. The bill has passed both houses and is on its way to the governor’s desk.

Ysursa said, “It’s still a significant hurdle, and it should be, to get the people’s legislation on the ballot.”

Otter, who noted that he was an original supporter of the property-tax-limiting 1 Percent Initiative in 1978, said, “There’s nothing wrong with the initiative process, the idea that a group of people who have similar interests can get together if they … don’t think the Legislature has responded correctly to an issue and get that on the ballot.”

He said he believes the need to seek signatures in far-flung locales within the state will be a good thing for the process. “Frankly, I think it enhances people’s political awareness,” he said, “and increases their involvement.”

Idaho last tried to make the initiative process tougher in 1997, when the Legislature passed a law to require 6 percent of registered voters’ signatures in half of Idaho’s 44 counties; it was overturned by a federal court in 2001 as a violation of the one-person, one-vote rule.

A 1998 term limits initiative qualified for the ballot under the previous rules; no initiative qualified for the ballot after that until the court had overturned the 1997 law.

SB 1108 had bipartisan opposition in both houses of the Legislature; it passed 25-10 in the Senate and 45-21 in the House, with the majority of North Idaho lawmakers opposing it.

The bill takes effect July 1.