By Ben Olson
The 65th Legislative Session concluded in Boise last week. One proposal that caused a stir during this session was a series of bills aimed at toughening up requirements for getting an initiative on the state ballot.
Gov. Brad Little issued vetoes for the bills after receiving more than 6,000 phone calls, 99% of which were opposed.
After the vetoes — the only two issued of this session — Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, quadrupled down and issued four new bills, splitting the voter initiative issue into separate parts to ease the passage. Dixon was the only lawmaker from North Idaho to support the original bills.
The clock ran out on Dixon’s bills after the legislative session adjourned April 11, leaving the issue dead for the time being. Based on all the feedback I’ve received on this issue, I thought it would be informative to have a conversation with Rep. Dixon to see what’s behind his unflagging effort to toughen up signature requirements for Idaho ballot initiatives.
Ben Olson: The original bill was vetoed by Gov. Little. He received over 6,000 phone calls, emails and letters, with over 99% of people opposed to it. Why try this all over again?
Rep. Sage Dixon: The message we got from him was that he wasn’t opposed to what we were trying to do, and what we heard from the lawyers also about him not wanting to go forward was because the first part wasn’t so controversial. That was the fiscal note and the single-subject rule — those first four items being changed, trying to make it a little more transparent and consistent with the Legislature. But in changing the percentage of signatures needed and changing the number of districts needed and changing the time, those three together are what presented the problem, not individually. My thought was, since it passed both (the House and Senate), if we passed those as individual bills, the body would have the opportunity to determine which ones they liked or didn’t like. If they liked them all, the governor would have the ability to determine which ones he thought were appropriate or weren’t appropriate going forward.
BO: Isn’t this an attempt to circumvent the veto override process? It’s the same bill, you’ve just compartmentalized it.
SD: Well, it’s different bills, Ben, because if we just went with, say, the 10% one, you still would have the 18 districts and the 18 months, and the same thing on down the line. … They’re different. The things that are changing are the same as those that were in SB1159, but it’s not the exact same bill, if that makes sense to you. We weren’t changing everything at the same time, we were changing single parts of the existing law.
BO: I get that, but one of the things you talked about was that you were promoting these bills to make sure rural voters have an adequate say. It seems to me that statement is a little disingenuous because rural voters have just as much exposure to the state ballot as urban voters. You, more than I, know the process a bill takes to become a law. It seems like you are trying to block people from seeing things on the ballot. Am I wrong here?
SD: Yes, I’m not trying to block things at all, Ben. I truly am trying to expand the process so more people have a say in the law that’s being made. Our current process is through elected representation, where we’re elected by a majority of our district, so when we come down here, we’re giving a voice to our district. In that process, then, everybody has a voice in what’s brought before them as a law. Currently, you go to Ada County, Canyon County and a little bit of Twin and say Bannock, and you’ve got all the signatures you need there, and you also have the majority of the voting population there, so they don’t have to pay any attention to, say, District 27 or District 20 or even District 7 itself … and in asking for more to be done to place something on the ballot, I believe because we’re going around that legislative process that more people in the state need to be involved in saying that this is appropriate — (that they) want to be governed under that — rather than just specific areas of people.
BO: When it comes to the overwhelming opposition to this bill, isn’t that people weighing in their opinion? Do you really think this has widespread support in Idaho?
SD: There was a poll the Farm Bureau did that showed a lot of support, and all the questions were put out to those people there as well, and most people were in favor of changing the current process. They saw value in making it more expansive, so they could have a say. I would say, I didn’t specify the rural parts, Ben. That was kind of what came out as other people were speaking to this, because while I don’t think it’s very possible, but conceivably rural areas could all get together and outvote folks that were in an urban area if they were able to get together enough in doing that. But I believe it’s important, again, that if we’re making law, that it’s more reflective on what everybody in the state wants, not just specific areas. So there were maps that we handed out. They showed the areas where the signatures were gathered — not where they attempted to go but where they hit that mark and that were targeted for both Prop. 1 and 2. And they are kind of carbon copies of each other. It was odd to see the areas that were left out and where they didn’t go to get signatures from. … I know it came up a little bit in the debate that the Reclaim Idaho people did make efforts in certain counties, but weren’t able to get those numbers there. With the metrics they have now, you can target people to where you’re going to be able to get your votes, because they agree with your political persuasion — you know, the way that all the data was collected. So it was kind of exposed in these maps. I may not be explaining it correctly, but it seems to be evident.
BO: When asked who helped him draft the original legislation of SB1159, Sen. Scott Grow told reporters that it was “confidential information.” I’ll ask the same question to you, Sage: Who helped you draft your bills? What support did you get?
SD: It was other representatives and senators. We went over different issues, what we wanted this to look like … My first statement to this effort was I was shooting for 35 of 35 (districts) to be consistent with what my argument is, which is every district in the state would be able to be represented in that desire to get something on the ballot. … We would run ideas by the attorney general’s office. We modified things down to what we had at that point and tried to modify it even more after getting a lot of feedback and the difficulty that a lot of the Senate had, and that’s why we ran that trailer bill to amend the original bill. But there was no collusion with any kind of — the pay day loan thing, I know where that came from, but that was not ever, there was nobody I ever dealt with like that. … This isn’t an effort by any lobbyist group as it has been presented, and even. Rep. Scott made some allusions to that, that somehow lobbyists were pushing this through. It’s all corrupt, and it’s just patently false.
BO: One thing I have to bring up is, looking at North Idaho candidates’ campaign contributions from 2018, if you look at Rep. Scott she had 80 donations from private individuals, Mike Boeck had 26, Stephen Howlett had 47, Scott Herndon had 57, Jim Woodward had 34. … You had five donations from private individuals in 2018, two of which were from Texas. The rest were from a lot of PACs and corporations. I’m curious how you think that you’re speaking for the rural voter when it’s obvious who has your ear when it comes to finances.
SD: I don’t ask for money, Ben, that’s why. I think it’s hard for people to give money in our district, and the people who do, do it when they’re ready to. So that’s also why PACs give us money and lobbyists give us money. When you’re elected, that happens. I’m not beholden to them, and they know that. It comes as just a matter of being here, and they do it to try and get your ear. But I don’t bend that way because they contribute to my campaign, and they’re welcome to not to. I know that looks odd — I’m aware of that. But I’m not getting donations from individuals, not because they necessarily don’t want to, but because I don’t solicit them. I don’t market myself and try and say things just to appease people and get money from them. So that’s maybe a shortcoming. Maybe I need to do that more if people are concerned that I don’t have the support of my district, but I believe I do. While I’m getting a whole lot of negative feedback now, and I think there’s some people on the other side of the aisle, even in our district, that trusted me and now they don’t necessarily have that trust. But I’m happy to talk to them and explain myself as I am with you about my impetus here that has not changed. I just think this is a better way to do that initiative process, with upholding of the way our government is structured rather than a strict democratic process, where it’s strictly a majority that wins in a sense. So if we’re going to do the legal established law, more people should be involved in the state.
BO: It seems to me, Sage, that your backing of these bills shows sort of an inherent distrust of Idaho voters. Is that accurate at all? You’re essentially implying that people don’t know enough when they read the ballot what they’re voting for.
SD: I do not doubt the voting public’s ability to make a decision on an issue, but it is undeniable that the interests of larger population areas will outweigh the interests of lower population areas. … I just want to be sure that if something is on the ballot that they wanted it there. Because if you have the majority of the population that are able to get it on the ballot, then the same majority population will be able to vote it into effect. And I am fine with that initiative process, Ben. I will keep saying the same thing: More people need to be involved, because it’s easy to ignore certain parts of the state. And it might not be something they are in favor of, and yes, through the voting process, you don’t aways have as much information, but they can still be overruled by a majority in larger population areas. So that’s a good question, and I can see how it would look like that. Fair enough. But no, I trust the voters, and that’s how we live and die in politics as far as being an elected representative.
BO: I see these bills as a solution to a problem that I’m not seeing in Idaho. I’m not seeing a preponderance of initiatives on our ballots. I’m not seeing a bunch of initiatives being voted into law. What’s the problem that is drawing this action together?
SD: I would just repeat the same thing: It’s not necessarily a reaction to a problem that’s been experienced now, but . . . if we’re going to use that system it should be more reflective of the state as a whole. I try and keep things consistent with the original intent, and I don’t think our current process is. It’s morphed a couple of times through different lawsuits and different reasons, but that was my impetus in doing this.
BO: Did Proposition 2’s Medicaid expansion have anything to do with either Sen. Grow’s bill or your own bills that were introduced?
SD: No, I don’t think that was part of it, not that I recall. Part of the conversation I’m sure we looked at that, and it did have some part as far as looking at what we were trying to make the changes in, because I believe testimony on Prop. 2 was that they got the signatures in four and a half months. Prop. 1 they got it in two and a half months, so that was kind of proving our point of shrinking the number of days allowed to gather signatures. So there was some bouncing off of that, and also thinking about what would be the things that passed, under the parameters we were proposing.
BO: Going back to your campaign finances, Sage, I see a lot of donations from health care organizations, insurance companies, PACs that support private health care. I see a lot of money coming your way from the people that would benefit if Medicaid expansion never happened.
SD: Well, I don’t know about that.
BO: I can send you the report I’m referring to. It shows that…
SD: I don’t doubt that, I just don’t know if they’re going to benefit or not from Medicaid expansion passing. It’s already passed, so that’s kind of a moot point. A lot of those donations will depend on what committees you’re on, so because I’m on the business committee, and that was even before I was chair. We deal with insurance, so that’s unfortunately, or fortunately, we need money to run campaigns, and that’s where we are. They keep in touch with people that way. That’s what they think they need to do, and we need the money to run campaigns. So those things kind of tie together, but again it doesn’t mean I’m doing something a lobbyist wants, or a corporation wants, because it shows up on my campaign finance report. I know that’s a hard thing to take my word on, but hopefully I can exemplify that somehow, because I certainly don’t deal with the insurance agencies. Plenty of the legislation — maybe not plenty but some that they were opposed to — I allowed to be heard and through the committee.
BO: I guess the reason I’m asking is that it just seems that there is a lot, lot, lot more support for killing these bills off and for keeping the voter initiative system either as it is, or slightly modified with the single-issue and financial disclosure items. I’m just curious why you seem to be ignoring the overwhelming opposition to this issue. Statewide. Both parties.
SD: I think most of it’s coming from one area, Ben. I don’t think it’s both parties. There’s a couple of people in our party, there are a lot of people nervous about the noise being made, but I don’t think it’s an overwhelming number of the state. It might be a very vocal portion of the state, and the people that helped mainly get Prop. 2 through, who I’ve seen be opposed to it…
BO: Like Heather Scott? Like Carl Crabtree? Like Jim Woodward? Like Priscilla Giddings? All of them Republicans…
SD: I can’t speak to that, Ben. I don’t know what their motivations are. I have ideas, but it wouldn’t be gracious of me to say in doing that. I have heard support and had support from other people for these. It just isn’t put in the media. The polls the Farm Bureau did shows overwhelming support to change our current process.
BO: Sage, I appreciate you talking with me, I’m sorry for the tough questions, but this is something that has come up a bunch to me, so…
SD: That’s fine. I don’t mind your questions at all. That’s my job, and I need to answer them.
Special thanks to Rep. Dixon for taking the time to speak with me and answering all of my questions. It shows character for a lawmaker to make himself available to the media and their constituents.
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