House Republicans fight to save, change bill limiting voter initiatives

March 29, 2019

BOISE — The Idaho House was poised to pass a highly controversial bill to limit voter initiatives on Thursday, but House Republicans instead spent hours in closed-door caucus meetings then suddenly introduced a new version, now scheduled to be voted on Friday.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said the new bill was “consistent with some of the input we’ve been hearing.”

However, the new bill, HB 296, was sent directly to the House floor, with no opportunity for a hearing or public testimony, after a hastily called House Ways and Means Committee meeting during a lunch break from the House session mid-day Thursday. There was so little notice of the meeting, which wasn’t even announced to the House as House rules require, that the only Democratic member of the committee who attended was House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, who voted against introducing the bill and sending it to the full House’s 2nd Reading Calendar. The motion passed, 4-1, with only the Republican members of the panel supporting it.

Bedke said he still supports the initial bill, SB 1159, which would require signatures from 10 percent of the registered voters in 32 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts to get an initiative or referendum on the Idaho ballot, while also cutting down the allowed signature-gathering time from 18 months to six months and imposing other requirements. Current law calls for 6 percent of voters’ signatures in 18 of the 35 districts.

HB 296 is a “trailer bill,” which would follow after SB 1159 and alter it to set the signature-gathering time at nine months and the number of districts at 24; other than that, SB 1159 would be unchanged. The new bill also includes an emergency clause.

The move came as SB 1159, which earlier passed the Senate by just one vote, has drawn increasing criticism. On Thursday, four former Idaho attorneys general, including three Republicans and one Democrat, questioned the bill’s constitutionality in a guest opinion published in the Idaho Press. Then, former longtime Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa joined them, telling the Idaho Press he “strongly” agrees with the piece.

Ysursa, also a Republican, said, “This bill is a full frontal assault on the people’s constitutional right of initiative. The Legislature should be forthright and run it as a joint resolution to amend the Constitution.”

Bedke responded, “Those gentlemen, while we appreciate their opinion, it is just that.” He said he’s prepared to let a judge decide if the state is sued.

“We understand that that’s a risk we take with every bill we pass,” the House speaker said.

Late Thursday afternoon, the Caldwell Chamber of Commerce issued a statement condemning the bill, on behalf of “the business community of Caldwell.”

The bill has drawn overwhelmingly negative testimony at public hearings in both houses, with only one member of the public and three paid lobbyists supporting it; while dozens and dozens of Idahoans from all over the state decried it, ranging from retired judges and professors to business officials, health advocates, Proposition 2 volunteers and everyday citizens.

Republican Rod Beck, a former Idaho Senate majority leader and longtime GOP activist, told the House State Affairs Committee on Tuesday the bill is “not really necessary, and it’s a solution in desperate search of a problem. ... Idaho’s citizens have sparingly used the initiative and referendum process.” He said, “All you’re doing is upping the ante of money, that’s all you’re doing here.”

Backers of the bill have insisted it’s not retaliation for Idaho voters successfully mobilizing volunteer signature-gatherers and passing Proposition 2 in November to expand Medicaid, after lawmakers resisted taking any action on the issue for six straight years. But the last two times Idaho tightened its rules for ballot measures both were after successful measures passed. After Idaho voters repealed the “Luna Laws” on school reform in 2012 in three successful referendums — the first since 1936 — lawmakers added the current 18-district requirement. After Idahoans approved term limits in 1996, and lawmakers repealed them in 1997, the Legislature imposed more far-reaching restrictions, but they were overturned in federal court.

Erpelding said the House Republicans’ actions continue a record of secrecy on SB 1159, which was sponsored in the Senate by freshman Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle. Before the new bill was introduced Thursday, amid heavy rumors that House Republicans wanted to amend SB 1159 in the full House — avoiding any additional public testimony — Erpelding said, “It is a way to use the darkness of night to shore up a bill that was produced in the darkness of night.”

Since the bill passed the Senate, House members including Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, have said they negotiated privately with the Senate on it. Dixon, the sponsor of HB 296, told the House State Affairs Committee at its public hearing Tuesday, “I will admit I wanted 35 of 35” districts. “Everybody’s voice should be heard in this. But in our negotiation with the Senate we had to bring it back to 32.”

Backers of the bill have maintained it would preserve the voice of rural Idahoans in deciding which initiatives can qualify for the ballot, but those testifying at the hearings noted that it would allow residents of just four legislative districts — including the state’s most urban districts — to veto the will of the rest of the state’s population.

House Assistant Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said, “The changes, I think, don’t change anything. They leave all the core problems in place, and I remain every bit as convinced that this would be struck down as unconstitutional as the original bill would be.”

Rubel, a Harvard-trained attorney, said the successful Medicaid expansion initiative, Proposition 2, wouldn’t have qualified for the ballot under the new trailer bill’s rules, though it was “the largest, most organized signature collection across Idaho in Idaho history.”

The House calendar for Friday includes voting both on SB 1159, and the new follow-up bill, HB 259, which, if passed, would go to the Senate. If SB 1159 passes the House, it’d go to Gov. Brad Little’s desk.