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Testimony overwhelmingly against ballot initiative bill, vote planned for next week

March 19, 2019
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Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, presents his bill to make it harder to qualify an initiative or referendum measure for the ballot to the Senate State Affairs Committee on Monday, March 11, 2019.

BOISE — After hours long and passionate public testimony, nearly all of which strongly opposed a bill that would make it harder to qualify an initiative or referendum for the ballot, the Senate State Affairs Committee on Friday voted unanimously to hold the bill in committee at the discretion of the chairwoman.

But it could come back for a vote anytime, and according to Chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, it will be soon.

“We’re ready,” she told the Idaho Press. “It’ll be sometime next week.”

The bill, SB1159, sponsored by Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, would increase the number of signatures required for an initiative or referendum to make the ballot, from 6 percent of the voters in 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts, to 10 percent of the voters in 32 of the 35 legislative districts. It would also cut down the amount of time allowed to gather signatures from 18 months to six months. The bill would also apply several new requirements to voter ballot measures, including following a single-subject rule, including a fiscal impact statement and a proposed funding source, and having an effective date of no sooner than July 1 following the vote to approve the measure.

Of those who argued against the bill, many had similar views, calling the proposal “unconstitutional,” “un-American,” and a threat to democracy, emphasizing that while the process to get an initiative on the ballot should be hard, “it’s already hard.”

Almost 60 people spoke at Friday’s meeting, yet 17 of those signed up couldn’t speak due to time constraints. Lodge offered more time, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, opposed, so the committee went on to hold the bill.

During testimony, the committee heard from dozens of people across the state in opposition — from Culdesac and Moscow to Boise and Meridian — both rural and urban areas. Benjamin Kelly, lobbyist for the Food Producers of Idaho, was the only person to speak in favor of the bill.

“The current standard of 18 legislative districts allows for targeted signature gathering in population centers and in essence games the system,” Kelly said.

Many people spoke of the time and effort put into gathering signatures for the Medicaid initiative, which won support from 60.6 percent of Idaho voters in November. Some said they did so by knocking on doors in the snow and devoting several hours to the task, taking time off from work and school.

Numerous people have criticized the timing of the bill, saying it’s a direct response to Medicaid expansion’s passage.

“Having constituents so invested in the well-being of our communities should be a source of pride for the Legislature, not motivation for retaliation,” said Coeur d’Alene resident Rebecca Schroeder.

Lodge said the legislation has “nothing to do with Medicaid,” highlighting the fact that the Senate approved Medicaid’s FY2020 budget this week.

Among those who spoke against the bill was Gary Moncrief, political scientist emeritus at Boise State University, who touched on the claim that the legislation will help give rural districts more voice. He also expressed concern that the bill could be unconstitutional.

“Many rural districts are already advantaged by the current system, and SB 1159 would increase that advantage,” Moncrief said. “Today, the number of registered voters is wildly different from one district to another … because we’re near the end of the redistricting cycle, and some areas have grown in the past 10 years while others haven’t.”

Winder said that although he’d heard Moncrief present many times, this was the first time he’d seen him take a position for or against a bill.

The Idaho Press obtained a copy of Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett’s request for the Office of the Attorney General’s opinion on SB 1159, where she asked “whether it (the bill) unconstitutionally over-restricts the citizens’ right to implement a ballot initiative.”

The office concluded that the bill “likely” does not violate the state Constitution, adding that “while more cumbersome,” the restrictions imposed by the bill are both “reasonable and workable,” but that the signature time-frame could be “problematic” if evidence shows that the initiative sponsor couldn’t reasonably collect the required signatures in that 180-day period. The response also states that the right to initiate legislation “does not appear to be impeded” by the bill’s restrictions.

Grow closed the hearing, quoting the Idaho Constitution, and touching on the part of it that states, “The people reserve to themselves the power to propose laws, and enact the same at the polls independent of the legislature. This power is known as the initiative, and legal voters may, under such conditions and in such manner as may be provided by acts of the legislature ...”

“So why are we here?” Grow asked. “We have a constitutional duty as a legislature to assure that the process for initiatives is what we as a elected representatives feel it should be.”

The meeting was a continuation of a hearing cut off on Monday after the committee ran well over the scheduled meeting time. The committee voted to continue hearing testimony to give everyone ample time to speak, but Lodge tried to wrap up Monday’s hearing after letting just six out of the more than 100 people signed up to testify speak.

After Friday’s lengthy hearing, Luke Mayville with Reclaim Idaho, the group that assembled volunteers to pass the Medicaid expansion initiative, said he hopes that the bill won’t just be stalled in committee a few days, but that lawmakers will “go back to the drawing board,” bring stakeholders to the table and do more research on the issue.

“We, those who came out to testify against SB 1159, are so pleased that the bill has been held in committee,” Mayville said. “We are pleased that they have decided not to move forward with a bill that would directly threaten the right of Idahoans to organize ballot initiatives.”

Meanwhile, one of the people who successfully brought Proposition 1, the horse race betting machines initiative, to the November ballot, has been advising Grow on the bill, according to a story on Friday from Boise State Public Radio’s James Dawson.

A public records request by Boise State Public Radio revealed email exchanges between Grow and John Sheldon, the former president of Treasure Valley Racing, which operated Les Bois Park.

Emails included a Microsoft Word document titled “Ballot statute briefing points for Grow.” Another email discussed a pending federal court case regarding Colorado’s initiative laws, according to the article. Colorado voters in November passed an initiative putting restrictions on payday lenders. The ensuing Colorado court case decision was provided on behalf of Sheldon’s client, Moneytree, Inc., a payday loan servicer headquartered in Seattle, Sheldon told Boise State Public Radio, but Sheldon also insisted he’s not lobbying on the bill.

Another email included a Wall Street Journal article detailing other states’ plans on restricting ballot initiative laws.

Following Friday’s decision to hold the bill, the House Republican Caucus responded in a statement saying they support the bill, stating that it “levels the playing field” for rural communities, one of the arguments reiterated by those supporting the proposal.

“We have a legislative responsibility to look at policy to ensure that we are meeting the needs of all Idahoans,” Rep. Jason Monks, R-Nampa, said in the statement. “These new requirements would not hinder the referendum process, only create more concise standards for statewide ballot questions.”

Idaho Press’s Boise Bureau Chief Betsy Z. Russell contributed to this report.