Senate passes initiatives ‘trailer’ bill

April 4, 2019

BOISE — After significant debate on the floor Wednesday, the Senate passed HB 296, the controversial “trailer” bill on initiatives, which would slightly ease the requirements in the more substantial initiatives bill, SB 1159.

The Senate voted, 20-15, to pass the bill. It has already cleared the House, so it now heads to Gov. Brad Little’s desk, where he will decide whether or not to sign the bill into law.

Little told the Idaho Press Tuesday, “You can’t look at one (bill) without looking at the other.”

Little’s options include signing one or both bills; vetoing them; or allowing them to become law without his signature. The vote margins in both houses weren’t high enough to override a governor’s veto.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, said that after SB 1159 cleared both houses, there were comments from the public that “possibly that was a bridge too far.”

“Having listened to comments from other people, we thought it would be helpful to reduce some of the requirements to make sure that it was not restrictive for people to get initiatives on the ballot,” Grow said.

The bill is a follow-up to SB 1159 — the bill that would make it much harder to qualify a voter initiative or referendum for the Idaho ballot — which is now on the governor’s desk waiting his decision. SB 1159 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, and impose other restrictions.

HB 296 lowers the number of districts to 24 and increases the time to gather signatures to nine months. Still, the requirement to gather signatures from 10 percent of all registered voters statewide remains in the bill.

{p dir=”ltr”}”I don’t feel that 296 restricts the ability to get an initiative on the ballot,” Grow said.

Compared to the Senate’s earlier 18-17 vote in favor of SB 1159, six senators changed their votes. Four — Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa, Regina Bayer, R-Boise, Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian and Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls — switched their vote from “no” to “yes.” Sens. Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs, and Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, switched from “yes” to “no.”

Den Hartog said the follow-up bill addresses some of the concerns she had with SB 1159, stating she thinks it “struck a balance.”

“I struggled greatly with SB 1159, and one of the reasons I struggled with it was the compounding effect of the many different changes we were making,” Den Hartog said. “A couple of days ago we had debate on the floor that referenced Goldilocks and getting it just right, and for me, that’s just what HB 296 does.”

Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, spoke in favor of the bill, citing an L.A. Times article about increased use of initiatives across the country to bypass state legislatures.

“I think that our attention to voter initiative laws in Idaho is important, so we can modernize and keep current with the trends that are already happening across the country,” Souza said.

In debating for the second time — saying it was the first time she’d ever debated twice on a bill — Souza added that senators shouldn’t pay close attention to the calls and emails being sent to Little’s office, which have overwhelmingly opposed both bills. She said modern technology makes it easier to send out mass information that can be misinterpreted.

Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, emphasized that the bill is an amendment, and that they are “reasonable amendments based on the public testimony that was given.”

Wednesday’s vote comes after the Senate State Affairs Committee on Tuesday heard hourslong testimony from dozens of people, all strongly opposed to the bill.

Several senators spoke in opposition to the bill, including Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, who argued the “trailer” bill doesn’t “adequately correct the problems of 1159,” adding that it’s still too restrictive, as well as unconstitutional.

“We have the power, but is it right?” Stennett asked. “Is it right to not hear our people and make it so restrictive that we aren’t listening anymore?”

In closing debate, Grow told the Senate, “Maybe it’s not perfect — I don’t think we have any perfect legislation.”

Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-Inkom, who voted against 1159, said he’d already conveyed his thoughts on the “big brother bill,” but discussed the history of the bill and its “procedural urgency.”

Guthrie called on the Senate secretary to read the full history of the bill, highlighting the short length of time it took for it to arrive on the Senate floor for a vote.

HB 296 was hastily introduced in House Ways & Means Committee last Thursday while the House was at ease. It was placed on the 2nd reading calendar without a public hearing, and on Friday, the House suspended rules and took the bill up for a full vote on the floor, where it passed, 47-22, after substantial debate.

“My point with having madam secretary read the history was to show that the procedure, to me, appears problematic,” Guthrie said.

Guthrie also criticized the fact that SB 1159 even made it to the governor’s desk, with HB 296 being proposed to address concerns of the public.

“I’m left to draw the conclusion that the trailer bill may be recognition that 1159 went too far and maybe there’s a perceived probability that the gentleman on the second floor may veto,” Guthrie said. “I believe the optics of this chosen strategy could not be more troubling or unfair, perhaps in particular to the man on the second floor. ... There’s already a bill at the last station of the lawmaking process. If the two legislative bodies didn’t like 1159, it should have never gotten there.”

Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, who spoke in support of the bill, said he believes the bill’s adjustments are “reasonable” to hand off to the governor.

“Let him take his pick,” Rice said. “That’s one of the processes that’s been put in place since statehood — we can pass a trailer bill. It’s not inappropriate to give the governor that choice. He can keep the first bill we passed or he can make the adjustments in the trailer bill — it’s up to him and it’s totally appropriate.”

Reclaim Idaho Executive Director Rebecca Schroeder met with Little on Wednesday afternoon, and said the two had “a productive discussion.”

“I think our priorities are aligned on the most important components of this issue: Preserving Idaho values of fairness and transparency and protecting every Idahoan’s constitutional rights,” Schroeder said in a statement. She said she asked Little to veto both bills. The group has collected more than 11,000 signatures from around the state on petitions urging a veto.

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