Idaho Speaks town hall addresses initiative process

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff

Reclaim Idaho, the nonpartisan grassroots organization largely responsible for getting Medicaid expansion on the 2018 Idaho ballot, hosted a town hall July 23 in Sandpoint to foster discussion surrounding the state’s ballot initiative process.

That process was center stage during the 2019 legislative session, as Senate Bill 1159, fronted by Eagle Republican C. Scott Grow, made it all the way to Governor Brad Little’s desk before being vetoed. While the current law requires the signatures of 6% of voters from 18 of Idaho’s 35 districts in 18 months in order for a citizen’s initiative to appear on the ballot, SB 1159 brought those numbers to 10% from 32 districts in six months. 

The bill spurred weeks of debate before Little’s veto, at which point Ponderay Republican Rep. Sage Dixon brought it back in four separate bills so “the body would have the opportunity to determine which [parts of SB 1159] they liked or didn’t like,” Dixon told the Sandpoint Reader in April.

Sandpoint was the second stop on Reclaim Idaho’s “Idaho Speaks” town hall series. The group invited members of the public and District 1 legislators to listen and participate in debate surrounding a simple question: “Should the ballot initiative process be left as is, or should additional restrictions be added to it?” 

Of three District 1 state legislators, only Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, attended the July 23 event. Woodward voted against SB 1159 during the session.

Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce CEO Kate McAlister moderated the event, which featured Reclaim Idaho co-founder Luke Mayville speaking against additional initiative restrictions and Reclaim Idaho Communications Director Jeremy Gugino speaking in favor. 

A heated conversation between the mostly anti-SB 1159 crowd and Gugino ensued, with one attendee telling Gugino to “sit down” as he made the argument that the current ballot initiative process “cuts out” the voices of rural Idahoans.

What a majority of the audience did not realize was that Gugino was only playing a part — he is actually aligned with Mayville in seeing SB 1159 as a threat to Idahoans’ constitutional rights, but served as a proponent of the bill in order to foster discussion among town hall attendees.

A disclaimer regarding Gugino’s fictional persona was unintentionally omitted from opening remarks, Mayville told the Reader July 24.

“We meant for it to be entirely clear to everyone that Jeremy was roleplaying,” Mayville said. “The goal of the format is to make sure the audience hears both sides of the issue.”

Mayville said moderators at all future Idaho Speaks town halls — including events in Coeur d’Alene, Twin Falls, Idaho Falls and Eagle — will include the disclaimer.

Gugino told the Reader on July 24 that he “doesn’t mind taking the hits” as the pro-SB 1159 speaker, but that ideally legislators who voted in favor of the bill will show up and speak at future town halls. Still, despite the legislators’ absence and the ensuing confusion, Gugino said he felt the Sandpoint event accomplished what he believes a town hall should.

“It was very lively, it was very candid. We had so many people raise their hands and either ask a question or make a comment and debate me, and that’s the whole purpose,” Gugino said. “What’s important is that we have an honest and robust discussion about this issue.”

The next Idaho Speaks town hall is Tuesday, July 30 at 6:30 p.m. in the Coeur d’alene Library Community Room.

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