By one vote, ballot initiative restrictions bill passes Senate

March 26, 2019

BOISE — After lengthy debate, a bill to make it much harder to qualify an initiative or referendum for the Idaho ballot passed the Senate on Friday, by just one vote.

The Senate voted 18-17 to pass SB1159, proposed by Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle. It’ll now head to the House, where it’ll be taken up in committee, and, if passed there, the full House will vote on it.

Grow’s bill increases the number of signatures required for an initiative or referendum to make the ballot, from 6 percent of the registered voters in 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts, to 10 percent in 32 of the 35 legislative districts. It also cuts down the amount of time allowed to gather signatures from 18 months to six months. The bill would also require initiatives to follow a single-subject rule, have a fiscal impact statement and a proposed funding source, and take effect no sooner than July 1 after the vote.

“These things all together make it the most restrictive in the country,” said Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, an opponent of the bill.

In his opening debate, Grow urged the Senate to not “get swayed to vote the minority,” calling the bill a “common sense approach.” He cited support for the bill from several groups including the Idaho Freedom Foundation, Food Producers of Idaho and the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry. He also cited a recent poll from the Idaho Farm Bureau that found 61 percent of a sample of 500 registered Idaho voters believe changes should be made to the state’s initiative process.

“Just be careful about polls, often the way they turn out has a lot to do with the questions that are asked,” said Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise.

Grow stated that in Idaho, “We govern as a republic.” What that means, he said, is that “We do have a constitution, that is the base. And that elected representatives then are empowered by the people to create the laws.”

Later, as Burgoyne debated against the bill, he said he doesn’t agree Idaho is run as a republic, and that the state’s constitution doesn’t imply there’s a republic.

“What does absolute power lead to? It’s not a good thing,” he said.

In its committee hearing, the bill received overwhelming opposition from people across all areas of the state, and lawmakers across party lines, some who worry the bill would make it virtually impossible to get an initiative or referendum on the ballot.

Stennett spoke in opposition, stating that she doesn’t believe the bill will help give rural districts more voice — a key argument those supporting the bill have touched on. She also voiced concern over the bill’s federal constitutionality.

“In the end, if we want people to participate we have to remember that we should allow more time so that we can reach all of our rural areas and have them have ample time to have their voices heard in the initiative and referendum process,” Stennett said.

Under the bill, Stennett said, only 8.4 percent of Idaho’s population could have veto power on a ballot initiative, leading to violation of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“That is a severe infringement on the ‘one person, one vote,’” Stennett said.

“Unfortunately, if this passes, they would be muzzled twice. Because not only would they have a much more difficult time to tell us what we needed to do … as far as good policy,” she said. “They’d also be paying for taxpayer dollars to fight it in court.”

Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, emphasized that there are other ways to accomplish the goal of reaching rural voters, referring to other states that have processes limiting how many signatures can come from a single county.

“Lost in the discussion is the most important branch — that’s our citizens,” Guthrie said. “Keep in mind, good senators, without them, there’s no us.”

Guthrie noted that states with higher percentages apply those percentages to the number who voted in the last election — not the number of registered voters, like Idaho’s law does, making Idaho’s hurdles higher.

The bill, Burgoyne said, isn’t going to have the “desired effect of limiting the people’s ability to bring initiatives.” What it will do, he said, “is take the people of Idaho out of their initiative process and put powerful forces outside of the state in charge of it,” who can afford to send armies of paid signature-gatherers out to 32 legislative districts.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, spoke in support of the bill, though he said he recognized “It’s a very, very difficult issue.”

“I would submit to you this is about money, and the people have found a way to vote themselves into the treasury,” Winder said.

Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur D’Alene, who also supports the bill, said she thinks it will allow voters to be more educated in the decisions they’re making, especially when it comes to signing a petition.

“I think that the fact that we are asking for more information for people signing and requiring a fiscal note so they understand the impact is critically important for our process,” Souza said.

Many opponents of the bill spoke of the vast amount of emails they’d received from citizens against the bill. Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, said his “touchstone” for how he votes isn’t based on emails, but on talking to people in his district through private conversation. Through this, he said, “there are constituents that support the legislation.”

“What I do see with this is a bill that is actually wise,” Rice said.