By Zach Hagadone
As opposition mounts to an Idaho Senate bill that would tighten requirements for placing a citizens’ initiative on the ballot, the measure passed the chamber on a near-party-line vote March 1, now moving to the House, where Capitol watchers expect it to also pass in the Republican-dominated body.
Senate Bill 1110, co-sponsored by Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, and Rep. Jim Addis, R-Coeur d’Alene, would further restrict Idaho’s already difficult initiative process, requiring petitioners to collect signatures from at least 6% of registered voters in every one of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts. Currently, petitioners are required to gather signatures from 6% of voters statewide as well as 6% of voters in a total of 18 districts.
Critics from across the Gem State have blasted the measure as an attempt to make it all but impossible for grassroots organizations to exercise their constitutional right to place initiatives before voters, while proponents argue that it ensures an equal playing field for rural communities, which find their voices drowned out by more populous areas of the state.
In the past 18 years, only one citizens’ initiative has made its way to the ballot and passed — the Medicaid expansion approved by voters in 2018.
In an op-ed published by the Idaho Press on Feb. 15, Reclaim Idaho founder Luke Mayville — whose organization led the successful initiative — wrote, “No other state in the country imposes signature requirements on all legislative districts. If this bill becomes law, Idaho will have the most restrictive initiative laws in the United States.
“Let’s be clear: This bill is an attempt to make future grassroots initiatives virtually impossible.”
An attempt to raise the bar for signature gathering in the initiative process fronted by Ponderay Republican Rep. Sage Dixon met with a veto from Gov. Brad Little in 2019, after which Dixon returned with four separate bills in an effort to have the measure passed piecemeal. The session ended before those bills could be considered. At the time, both Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, and Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, opposed the effort.
Dixon told the Reader in an email March 3 that, “I do believe S1110 will result in better representation for rural counties in the initiative process.”
Meanwhile, Woodward was one of only two Republican senators to vote against SB1110, telling the Reader, “I voted no because I think moving from 50% of districts to 100% of legislative districts is a bit of a leap.”
Scott did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, letters to the editor urging opposition to SB1110 have cropped up in newspapers throughout the state, alongside a social media campaign urging Little to veto the bill should it come to his desk.
More dramatically, an ad hoc committee of former Idaho attorneys general — including a former chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court — along with several other prominent lawyers from around the state, announced March 1 that they had formed “to protect the Idaho Constitution from repeated attacks by the Idaho Legislature.”
Calling itself the Committee to Protect and Preserve the Idaho Constitution, the group’s spokesman, former AG and Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Jones, stated in a news release that, “Legislators have shown an alarming disrespect for our State Constitution this session and it is incumbent upon members of the legal profession to call them to account. The mission of our group is to blow the whistle on legislation that threatens the integrity of the Idaho Constitution and to use every legal avenue to oppose it.”
The committee took particular aim at SB1110, stating that the measure “would make it almost impossible” to bring an initiative or referendum before voters, and described it as “a direct attack on the bedrock principle of our Constitution — the right of the people to control their government.”
Dixon dismissed the committee, telling the Reader that, “The new group, at first glance, seems to be comprised of folks with a single political perspective, and a perceived authority due to their past employment. Already their public statements have displayed a lack of understanding of our foundational structure, and expose a distinct bias that I expect to continue.”
Lewiston Republican Sen. Dan Johnson joined Woodward in breaking ranks with their party in voting against SB1110, with Johnson arguing from the floor that, “If we’re going to make such significant changes to this, maybe we should look at a constitutional amendment and just remove it from the Constitution.”
Dixon characterized such arguments as “simply parroting opposition talking points and this approach was endorsed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals when addressing our former method of collecting signatures by county, and not District.”
Meanwhile, Woodward said, “We’ll have to watch and see how it fares in the House and with the governor.”
As of press time, SB1110 had been referred to the House State Affairs Committee. Read the full bill at legislature.idaho.gov/sessioninfo/2021/legislation/S1110.
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