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Idaho initiative proposal moves along in state Senate

Courtesy State of Idaho

The proposal would allow the people to decide a constitutional amendment setting a strict signature-gathering threshold for citizen initiatives.

The running battle over Idaho citizen ballot initiatives continues.

On Wednesday, the Senate State Affairs Committee considered a proposal to let the people vote on whether to tighten initiative signature requirements and embed the new threshold in the state constitution.

“The basic intent of the resolution is simply to give people around the state the opportunity to decide whether it’s important to include them all in the initiative process,” said Sen. Doug Okuniewicz (R-Coeur d’Alene).

The measure would not increase the number of signatures sponsors need to place a measure on the ballot, but it would require a certain number of signatures from all 35 legislative districts; in each jurisdiction, 6% of the number of people who voted in the previous general election. It’s a standard that was adopted by the legislature in 2021 and then rejected by the state Supreme Court. Initiative sponsors, including the group Reclaim Idaho, which was responsible for the successful Medicaid expansion measure in 2018, say it’s a nearly impossible standard for them to meet.

Nearly all of the more than 40 people who spoke at Wednesday’s hearing opposed the proposal. Many had been part of the signature gathering for the Medicaid expansion initiative and Reclaim Idaho’s 2022 education measure that called for a big increase in public school funding. Volunteers gathered enough signatures to place the latter on the ballot, but the group pulled it after Governor Brad Little announced he would support an increase of more than $400 million in his school budget.

Speakers declared the current threshold, signatures from 18 legislative districts, already difficult. They said adding new restrictions is unnecessary. Brad Brady says the lawmakers supporting the 35-district threshold should be required to go through the same process required of citizens.

“If they believed Idaho voters want this, instead of doing it through legislation, create a citizens’ initiative and go through the process like we’ve done,” Brady said.

Supporters argue it should be hard to place something on the ballot and that citizen initiatives should reflect the views of people in every corner of the state. They say the 18-district standard isn’t enough to protect the interests of rural people and that the current rules allow people with petitions to concentrate their efforts in Idaho’s largest metropolitan areas. Reclaim Idaho disputes that, saying its Medicaid expansion measure won in nearly every rural county in the state.

Sen. Abby Lee (R-Fruitland), one of the amendment’s 18 sponsors in the Senate, said she sees irony in the situation. She says people who want the public to vote on issues such as government funding for Medicaid and public schools don’t want the people to vote on the future of citizen initiatives.

“I think we’re doing exactly what you’re asking us to do,” Lee said. “Give the people a chance to vote on this idea and why is that a bad thing to put this fully out there. If people don’t like this idea, they’ll respond.”

The committee voted 7-to-2 to move the resolution to the full Senate for amendments, despite members saying it still needs work.

Since the measure proposes to change the state constitution, it must be approved by two-thirds votes in both the House and Senate and then win a simple majority at the ballot, likely in November.

Luke Mayville, the co-founder of Reclaim Idaho, says his organization will fight the proposal during its path through the legislature and, if needed, if it goes to the ballot.

Doug Nadvornick has spent most of his 30+-year radio career at Spokane Public Radio and filled a variety of positions. He is currently the program director and news director. Through the years, he has also been the local Morning Edition and All Things Considered host (not at the same time). He served as the Inland Northwest correspondent for the Northwest News Network, based in Coeur d’Alene. He created the original program grid for KSFC. He has also served for several years as a board member for Public Media Journalists Association. During his years away from SPR, he worked at The Pacific Northwest Inlander, Washington State University in Spokane and KXLY Radio.