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Friday, October 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Idaho constitutional amendment would lock number of legislators at 35

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 8, 2020

Idaho Gov. Brad Little delivers his State of the State address inside the house chambers at the state Capitol building on Jan. 6 in Boise.  (Otto Kitsinger/Associated Press)
Idaho Gov. Brad Little delivers his State of the State address inside the house chambers at the state Capitol building on Jan. 6 in Boise. (Otto Kitsinger/Associated Press)
By Riley Haun For The Spokesman-Review

Some Idaho leaders say it’s time to make sure the state doesn’t end up with fewer legislators to represent the growing population.

An amendment to Idaho’s constitution that would lock the number of legislative districts in the state at 35 will appear on ballots statewide in the November election. Currently, the constitution allows 30 to 35 districts.

House Joint Resolution 4, as the measure is officially known, easily passed both houses of the Idaho Legislature in March. But it needs approval from a majority of Idaho voters for final approval.

Some opponents of the plan argue that the idea is premature.

The number of districts has remained at 35 since at least the 1980s, said Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, who sponsored the resolution. But with redistricting triggered by the 2020 Census on the horizon, Bedke feels the option to reduce the number of districts needs to be taken away.

“We’re choosing to peg it at 35 because that’s the devil we know,” Bedke said. “It’s been the system for four decades now, and it is far better than leaving the option open to go down.”

After the last redistricting cycle in 2010, Twin Falls County sued the state’s bipartisan Citizen’s Commission for Reapportionment, arguing its plan split the county into too many pieces. Several other Idaho counties and cities, including Kootenai County, joined the suit.

The Idaho Supreme Court later ruled that, while dividing heavily populated areas was necessary to keep districts roughly equal in population, the 2010 plan split “communities of interest” in a way that violated the state constitution. The commission was ordered to go back to the drawing board.

When the redistricting commission meets to draw district lines in 2021, Bedke worries that commissioners could choose to reduce the number of districts to avoid splitting those communities of interest.

“Obviously, the court’s ruling is more easily met with fewer, larger districts,” Bedke said. “Ten districts wouldn’t split anything, for example, but your representation will be greatly diluted because you’re sharing one legislator with 180,000 other people instead of the 52,000 you share with at 35.”

Fewer districts would dilute representation in Idaho’s heavily populated regions like Coeur d’Alene and the Treasure Valley, which continue to experience unprecedented growth, Bedke said. It also would exacerbate existing challenges in the state’s “helicopter districts,” so called because legislators often joke they need a helicopter to get to their most isolated constituents in districts that span across four or five mountainous counties.

But it’s “nearly impossible” to say whether Bedke’s concerns are founded until redistricting begins in 2021, said Wendy Jaquet, co-chair of Idaho’s Census Complete Count Committee. The ways in which the commission might split growing communities can’t be predicted without solid numbers, Jaquet said.

Jaquet, a former Democratic minority leader in the Idaho House, feels Bedke’s push to freeze districts at 35 is premature.

“It’s clear a conversation did not happen about growth,” Jaquet said. “We are in a time we haven’t been in before, where even tiny, remote places are growing exponentially. What representation will we have in the future?”

If the districts are frozen in place at 35, Jaquet worries there will be no room for growth if Idaho begins to burst at the seams. In geographically small but densely packed districts, the population will only grow, while helicopter districts will face the possibility of getting even larger in size, Jaquet said.

Jaquet thinks it would have been better to wait it out until Census results are finalized. Then, legislators can look back in three or four years, determine in retrospect whether the redistricting commission would have been better served with more or fewer districts, and plan for the future accordingly.

“It needs to have a lot more looking at, so it really should be left the way it is this year,” Jaquet said. “We can revisit later.”

Bedke acknowledged that Idaho may later need more than 35 districts, and he said he would be open to changing the number in the future. But no legislators can agree yet on how many more districts are needed, Bedke said, and he feels the change needs to take effect now to avoid problems in the upcoming redistricting process.

“It’s clear there will be more people in Idaho in 2020,” Bedke said. “We know we have a problem, but we won’t know how big until the numbers bear out. We need to solve the problem before it’s unavoidable.”

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