BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The House on Friday approved a “trailer” bill on ballot initiatives to soften requirements of another ballot initiatives bill it approved just minutes earlier that many lawmakers worried went too far.
Representatives voted 47-22 to approve the second measure following a short debate. It had already approved the first bill 40-30 after a lengthy, heated debate.
The ballot initiatives bills have become some of the most contentious legislation this session. They are seen as a reaction by some lawmakers to Medicaid expansion passed by voters in November with 61 percent of the vote following years of inaction by the Legislature. The federal government would pay 90 percent of the cost, but Idaho still has to come up with $20 million and lawmakers have been fighting over how to do that.
The first initiative bill dramatically toughens the requirements to get an initiative or referendum on the Idaho ballot.
The trailer bill reduces the requirements but still makes the process significantly more difficult than current rules. It gives signature collectors 270 days to collect signatures from two-thirds of the legislative districts and must get 10 percent of voters.
The first bill would require those seeking ballot initiatives to get signatures from 10 percent of voters in 32 of Idaho’s 35 districts, compared to current rules that require signatures from 6 percent of voters in 18 districts.
The first bill would also cut the time allowed to gather the signatures from 18 months to about six months. Another requirement, with is also in the trailer bill, is that ballot initiatives must contain a fiscal note and possible funding source for the proposed law.
The Senate last week voted 18-17 to approve the first bill and it’s now headed to the Gov. Brad Little.
Little’s office on Friday declined to comment on the legislation or his inclinations toward the bill.
After the votes, House Republican Speaker Scott Bedke said the plan is for the Senate to also pass the trailer bill and have Little sign both bills. If all that happens, he said, the ballot initiative requirements in the trailer bill will replace those in the first bill.
Democratic House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding opposed both bills, referring to the trailer bill as “lipstick” during that bill’s short debate. Essentially, those opposed to both bills made the same argument that they made the initiative process too difficult.
During debate on the first bill, backers of the legislation said it’s needed to give rural voters an equal voice due to information technology and social media that will increasingly allow initiative backers to target growing population centers where groups supporting particular issues live. Supporters say that signatures in just four highly populated areas can get an initiative on the ballot.
“It’s a bill to increase the voice of the people of Idaho, to make sure more of the citizens have a say in creating a law, especially when they’re going around the legislative process,” said Republican Rep. Sage Dixon, who voted for the bill.
Republican Rep. Heather Scott, who voted against the bill, noted that the demographics of fast-growing Idaho are changing and becoming more like Oregon, Washington and California. In general, like many states, urban areas tend to contain more Democrats, and Idaho’s urban areas are the fastest growing.
“The minority party has worked their tail off to get some things on the ballot,” Scott said. “We as the majority body have every ability to say ‘no.'”
But Scott also blamed lawmakers for not allowing some issues, particularly from her district in northern Idaho, to be debated in the Legislature, leading to ballot initiatives.
Democratic Rep. Brooke Green noted that since 2013 only two initiatives have made it on the ballot, and only one of those passed. She said worrying about future Idaho demographics wasn’t reason enough to limit the possibility of future ballot initiatives.
“We have a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” she said. “A solution that is purely driven by fear of what could come.”
Those opposed to the bill also say the changes will make the Idaho initiative process impossible — except for big-money special interest groups —and remove a method voters have to take action if lawmakers fail to act.
Supporters contend that 24 other states don’t even allow ballot initiatives. But Idaho’s Constitution specifically gives voters the power to put forward ballot initiatives to add or alter laws. Opponents say the legislation violates that Constitution and will trigger lawsuits the state will lose.
Opponents also contend that the tougher requirements would give four legislative districts with just 9 percent of Idaho voters veto power over the entire initiative process.
“That is not democracy, that is not a republic,” said Democratic Rep. John Gannon. “This is tyranny when four legislative districts can prevent a vote.”
Earlier this week, four former Idaho attorney generals came out against the legislation, saying courts might rule it unconstitutional.
Democratic Rep. Jake Ellis touched on that aspect when he argued against the bill.
“Today we stand up and debate how we have to protect the government from the citizens,” he said.
But Republican Rep. Brent Crane said that altering the rules for ballot initiatives made sense because the new rules would better reflect the cost of a possible law and what a majority of Idahoans might want to approve.
“It provides predictability, it provides financial responsibility, and it ensures that there is broad support across the state of Idaho, in all corners of the state of Idaho, that each voice is represented and, more importantly, that rural Idaho has a seat at the table,” he said.