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Shawn Vestal: Idaho initiative ruling puts the people before the Legislature

Luke Mayville, a North Idaho native, co-founded Reclaim Idaho, which ran a successful initiative to expand Medicaid in Idaho and just won a Supreme Court case against the Idaho Legislature in which a new law restricting the initiative process was struck down. 
Luke Mayville, a North Idaho native, co-founded Reclaim Idaho, which ran a successful initiative to expand Medicaid in Idaho and just won a Supreme Court case against the Idaho Legislature in which a new law restricting the initiative process was struck down. 

In the case of the Idaho Legislature versus the people of Idaho, the people won by a knockout.

Furthermore, the victory – in the form of the Idaho Supreme Court delivering a spanking last week to an Idaho law that attempted to hog-tie the initiative process after that process produced results lawmakers didn’t like – could be another step in an evolution that bodes well for Gem State politics: a widening schism between ordinary citizens and a lawmaking body that has veered so hard to the right that it often seems completely unconcerned with passing legislation to benefit the people it serves.

The Legislature tried to tie the people’s hands by passing legislation that raised Idaho’s already high bar for putting initiatives on the ballot. The result was that the Supreme Court threw out that law, enshrined the initiative process as a fundamental right and limited the Legislature’s ability to mess with it.

“This ruling protects the initiative process for generations to come from future attempts by the Legislature to infringe upon that process,” said Luke Mayville, a co-founder of the group Reclaim Idaho, the winning party in the case. “That is a really big deal.”

Just a few days after Monday’s ruling, the court delivered another blow on behalf of the public against misguided ideologues when it ordered Lt. Gov, Janice McGeachin to release public records from her “task force” on indoctrination in schools, and fining her for her bad-faith refusals to follow the law.

A good day for the people.

If there is, in fact, a rising, faint breeze of moderation blowing in Idaho politics, Reclaim Idaho has played a crucial role. The organization ran the successful initiative in 2018 to expand Medicaid in Idaho, after the Legislature repeatedly refused to do so.

That issue laid out a stark divide between the intense objection to President Obama and Obamacare among ideologues, and an improvement to the fundamental quality of life for tens of thousands of uninsured Idahoans.

The ideologues in the Statehouse were winning, session after session.

The initiative qualified for the ballot and won more than 60% of the vote. Today, some 100,000 Idahoans have health coverage under Medicaid who did not before, and our vision of Idaho as a thoroughgoing far-right haven had to be adjusted somewhat.

Mayville said the vote illustrated that some of the assumptions about the deep red nature of Idaho may be too simplistic. The Legislature has drifted further and further to the right because the system rewards those who can win a GOP primary – and the groups with the money and wherewithal to put them over the top, he said. The result is that even in a conservative state, the far-right wields outsized influence.

The state is right of center, of course, and particularly so on the hot-button issues of national politics. And there is evidence that the theory of a moderating Idaho is weak: The state went for Trump with a 64% majority in 2020, for example, up from a 59% majority in 2016.

Still, on certain fundamental issues affecting the lives of ordinary people, the picture is more nuanced, Mayville said.

“It’s not clear that on basic bread and butter economic issues that Idaho is altogether right of center, because if you just took that as an assumption, Idaho would not have passed Medicaid expansion with 61% of the vote,” he said.

Mayville grew up in Sagle, attended schools in Sandpoint, and left for college back east, where he earned a doctorate in political science at Yale. He taught for several years, including four years at Columbia University, before moving to Boise with his wife during the initiative campaign.

Reclaim Idaho’s approach is to identify issues that have consensus-level support among Idahoans, and then push to make progress in those areas where the Legislature has fallen short. Next up is an initiative to expand school funding by raising the income tax on those earning more than $250,000, as individuals, or $500,000 as a couple.

Mayville said that public education is another example of the divide between the elected leadership and the people. Many of the most conservative lawmakers, and the influential lobbying groups like Idaho Freedom Foundation, are fundamentally hostile to public education.

But that’s not at all true among the population at large, which supports public schools and the importance of education repeatedly in polling. In a 2020 Boise State University poll, three-quarters of respondents identified education as the most important issue for the Legislature to address.

But the most significant legislative action out of Boise on education this year was a sustained attack on “critical race theory” coupled with defunding higher education.

Mayville hopes to achieve the same result with education that Reclaim Idaho did with health care. The added element of a tax increase – even a modest one for only the wealthiest – gives it an added degree of difficulty.

“That is going to be the most challenging aspect of the initiative campaign. We do think we can explain it as a reasonable, modest tax reform,” he said.

To do so, they’ll need to collect around 65,000 signatures. That would represent 6% of all registered voters, as well as 6% of voters in at least 18 legislative districts. This was the standard under which the Medicaid initiative qualified for the ballot – which prompted the Legislature to pass bills trying to make it even harder to put initiatives before voters, by requiring 6% of voters in every one of the state’s 35 legislative district.

This turned an already high bar into one approaching the impossible. By comparison, Washington requires 8% of the previous gubernatorial vote – a figure below the total registered voters – with no geographic requirement.

Reclaim Idaho sued over the new law, and the court slapped it down soundly, while making a pointed critique of the tendency in the Legislature to shut down voter initiatives that overturn its bills. In 2012, for instance, voters used referenda to overturn the so-called “Luna laws” – which tried to limit teachers’ bargaining rights and tie their pay to test scores – and lawmakers responded by tightening the screws on the initiative process.

A key argument made by lawmakers in the latest case was that initiatives would result in a tyranny of the majority unless they were much harder to qualify, which the justices all but scoffed at.

“Ultimately, the effect of (the law) is to prevent a perceived, yet unsubstantiated fear of the ‘tyranny of the majority,’ by replacing it with an actual ‘tyranny of the minority,’” they wrote. “This would result in a scheme that squarely conflicts with the democratic ideals that form the bedrock of the constitutional republic created by the Idaho Constitution, and seriously undermines the people’s initiative and referendum powers enshrined therein.”

On point after point, the justices sided with Reclaim Idaho and against the Legislature.

With the people, in other words, and against their supposed servants.

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