On Thursday, a small group of volunteers met in Idaho Falls to discuss a proposed ballot initiative to boost education funding by raising taxes on corporations and the rich.

Reclaim Idaho Executive Director Rebecca Schroeder and a couple of other Reclaim staffers have been traveling the state, holding similar meetings to explain to people interested in helping what the initiative would do and talk strategy and messaging. Several of the volunteer signature gatherers who showed up at the Idaho Falls Public Library were involved in Reclaim's successful effort to get Medicaid expansion passed in 2018.

"The citizens of Idaho really became the most powerful lawmaking body in the state," Schroeder said. "We succeeded in passing the most significant legislation in a generation with Medicaid expansion." 

Schroeder said Medicaid expansion and Reclaim's latest initiative are both examples of crises voters need to address because lawmakers haven't.

"This is a constitutional right that's designed to be a check on legislative power," she said.

Meanwhile, at a public forum in Rexburg in mid-September, House Republican lawmakers expressed different views on the current initiative process. House Majority Caucus Chairwoman Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, said lawmakers who represent rural districts feel like they were left out of the process for the two initiatives that made the ballot in 2018. As House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, discussed the legislative debate over how to fund Medicaid expansion, he said the law should be changed to hold initiatives to requirements more similar to those for legislation.

“We need to have them all coordinated, and the minimum, I think, we should require is how much it’s going to cost and where you’re going to get the money, and that makes you, as all of our citizens, maybe (make) a more informed decision,” he said. “It would still probably have passed, maybe it wouldn’t have. Who knows, but it would have been a more informed decision. We will have to grapple with that, as we go forward, of how best now to pay for this.”

Much of this year's legislative session was occupied by wrangling over expansion, which voters passed over the objections of many Republican lawmakers, and a fight over legislation that would have raised the thresholds to get another initiative on the ballot by increasing signature number and distribution requirements and cutting signature-gathering time. While Gov. Brad Little vetoed the bills, many expect the issue to come back in the 2020 session.

Meanwhile, three groups are trying to get measures on the November 2020 ballot, all three of which would, if they were to get on the ballot and pass, almost certainly run into opposition in the supermajority-Republican Legislature, which has the power to amend or even repeal any initiative voters approve.

What are any of their chances? And why are ballot measures backed by progressive groups passing in so many conservative states?

'Invest in Idaho' initiative

Reclaim Idaho's "Invest in Idaho" proposal would raise the corporate tax rate from 6.925 percent to 8 percent and would raise individual income taxes on a single person's income over $250,000 a year or a couple making more than about $525,000 a year from 6.925 percent to 9.925 percent. Its supporters say this could generate $170 million to $200 million a year, which would be put in a special Quality Education Fund. Schools could use the money for a list of specified purposes, including paying teachers, buying school supplies and textbooks, all-day kindergarten, career technical education programs, special education and funding art, music and drama programs.

Schroeder, who lives in Coeur d'Alene, said plenty of teachers who live there drive to Spokane, Wash. to work, where they can make about $30,000 a year more.

"Beyond salary, they're going to have 24 students in their class rather than 34. ... They're going to have support staff and resources and technology to actually do their jobs," she said. "We can't hold onto teachers. It's an exodus."

After cutting education funding during the recession, Idaho has been raising it by about 6 or 7 percent a year since 2015, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra is asking for another 5.3 percent bump in general fund spending boost next year. However, critics say it hasn't kept up with inflation or enrollment, pointing to districts that depend on supplemental levies for basic needs and teacher pay that, while it has gone up, is still low compared to neighboring states.

"We want to put the supplemental back in supplemental levies," Schroeder said.

The Idaho Education Association is monitoring the proposal but hasn't yet taken a position on it, said IEA spokesman Dave Harbison.

At Thursday's meeting, the volunteers talked about their experiences with education in Idaho and their views on the current levels of funding. Some said it violates the state Constitution's mandate that the Legislature "establish and maintain a general, uniform, and thorough system of public, free common schools."

"All schools in Idaho should be properly funded equally," said Annette Harker. "It shouldn't depend on the zip code you live in."

Reclaim Idaho already has a network of volunteers from Medicaid expansion. The group expects to have the petition certified and be able to start gathering signatures in mid-October. They plan to hold a major signature-gathering push on Nov. 5, when people will be voting in municipal elections around the state. Schroeder said she hopes to get thousands of signatures that day, hopefully enough to clear the threshold to qualify in at least a few legislative districts.

Schroeder encouraged the signature gatherers to tell personal stories about the impact of the state's education funding levels. And, she said they should avoid framing it as a partisan issue.

"Know in your heart this is a consensus issue," she said. "That data is on our side."

Marijuana

The proposed medical marijuana initiative, which is being sponsored by the Idaho Cannabis Coalition, would establish a registry of patients, caregivers, growers and agents who could use or possess medical marijuana and allow patients to possess up to 4 ounces of marijuana or up to six plants. A caregiver could possess up to the same amount per patient.

Russ Belville, who is behind the proposal, told the Jefferson Star earlier this month he was inspired by his 77-year-old father, who has chronic peripheral neuropathy, a type of nerve damage that can cause numbness and pain and muscle weakness. Belville said his father visited Oregon and found cannabis works better than opioids for his condition.

“(Opioids) are shutting down his organs and killing him,” Belville told the Star. “There’s thousands of people in Idaho just like my dad who could benefit from this medicine.”

The group Idahoans for Healthy Kids and Communities started this year to oppose the medical marijuana initiative. It is based in Rigby, and many of its members are in eastern Idaho. Numerous Republican lawmakers have come out against the initiative. Bedke said in Rexburg earlier this month that he is "very concerned" about it.

“It’s going to come in as medical marijuana, but almost every state that has brought that in, within a few years, is knocking on the door with trying to bring full recreational marijuana,” Rep. Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg, said at a forum in Idaho Falls sponsored by Reclaim Idaho in August. “I don’t think that’s a good thing to bring to Idaho personally.”

Minimum wage

Idaho's minimum wage is pegged to the federal one of $7.25 an hour, which hasn't changed since 2009. The initiative being proposed by Idahoans for a Fair Wage would increase it to $8.75 an hour on June 1, 2021, then raise it a dollar a year for the next two years and make it $12 an hour on June 1, 2024. Idaho's Republican lawmakers have opposed raising the minimum wage for years. Democrats introduce a bill to raise the minimum wage every year, but it never gets a hearing. In 2016, the Legislature banned cities and counties from setting a higher minimum wage on their own.

Part of a pattern

Almost 61 percent of Idahoans who voted in 2018 voted to approve Medicaid expansion. That's 365,107 "yes" votes for Proposition 2, or a few thousand more than the number of voters who handed Little his 21-point win. It got majority support in all but six of the state's 35 legislative districts, including in 21 of the 27 districts that are represented by all-GOP legislative delegations. Fifty-seven percent of Bonneville County voters approved Medicaid expansion and sent all-Republican legislators to Boise the same night, several of whom vocally opposed expansion and worked during the 2019 session to add work requirements and other limits to it. 

This may seem like a contradiction. Idaho's Republican Legislature had resisted Medicaid expansion for six years. But it's also part of a pattern of voters in red states approving policies that are often opposed by their elected Republican representatives.

The same night as Idaho, voters in Nebraska and Utah passed Medicaid expansion too. Arkansas and Missouri voters passed minimum wage increases that night, Missourians doing so even as they kicked out their Democratic U.S. senator for a Republican.

“Voters still may be very supportive of Republican candidates on social conservative issues … but also supportive of some of these economic initiatives,” said Jaclyn Kettler, a political scientist at Boise State University.

Some Republican lawmakers have said they fear well funded out-of-state groups will use the initiative process to push progressive policies. The Fairness Project, which is funded by a California health care workers' union, has backed Medicaid expansion initiatives in several states; it spent $500,000 on signature gathering to help get it on the ballot in Idaho.

"We don't want Idaho to be bought by big money, big corporations, big out-of-state money," Ricks said at the August Reclaim Idaho forum, pointing to the minimum wage and medical marijuana initiatives as examples of the kind of thing he is worried about.

For any of these initiatives to qualify under current rules, organizers need to gather the signatures of at least 55,057 registered voters statewide, or 6 percent of the number of registered voters at the time of the November 2018 election, and they also must meet the threshold of the signatures of 6 percent of voters in at least 18 of the state's 35 legislative districts.

Lawmakers typically convene for the year at the beginning of January and adjourn in March or April. If the Legislature makes any changes to the process in 2020, any petitions already approved for circulation would be held to the current rules "unless the Legislature were to expressly include a provision that everything previously approved for circulation would be subject to the new threshold or changes," said state Election Director Lisa Powers. The deadline to gather signatures to get an initiative on the November ballot is April 30, so signature-gathering will almost certainly still be going on during next year's session.

What are the chances?

Support for marijuana legalization, Kettler said, and especially medical marijuana, has been rising across party lines. While Democrats are generally more supportive of marijuana than Republicans, a majority of American adults now support legalizing marijuana according to some recent polls. Voters in Republican-majority Oklahoma and Utah approved medical marijuana initiatives in 2018, and a September 2018 poll of 606 Idaho adults found a majority opposed recreational marijuana but 79 percent favored legalizing medical marijuana.

“I would imagine medical marijuana would have a pretty good chance," Kettler said. "The minimum wage one is a bit more questionable. We saw some Republican voters support the Medicaid expansion. (I don’t know) if that would be similar to that or if, I think potentially some of the messaging on the issue could matter, or what groups get involved or endorse it.”

Kettler said she expects to see “a more active, broader opposition” to raising the minimum wage than to Medicaid expansion.

“We did see some of those key Republican leaders support (Medicaid expansion), or at least not actively fight against it,” Kettler said. “I do agree, (with) a minimum wage initiative there would probably be more pushback and a more organized opposition. I do think it would face some more challenges.”

Alex LaBeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, said IACI hasn’t taken a direct position yet on the proposal. However, he said he worries raising the minimum wage could be a burden on small businesses, especially. (Larger employers, he said, generally pay above the minimum wage anyway.)

LaBeau said he doesn’t think Reclaim Idaho’s initiative will pass.

“There’s really nothing about that one that makes sense economically,” he said. “I think that one’s just playing politics without any real basis in reality.”

LaBeau pointed to the Our Kids, Idaho's Future task force that is studying education in Idaho now, and to the work Little's office and education and business leaders are doing. He said he expects these efforts will do more to improve Idaho's schools than the initiative would.

“I almost look at that initiative as something that is more about fundraising and not really about trying to solve a problem,” he said.

Kettler said Democrats will likely support Reclaim Idaho's initiative, and the message of supporting education could appeal to some other voters. However, she said, it will likely require more explanation on its impact and run into more organized opposition than Medicaid expansion did. For example, business groups that backed or were neutral on Medicaid expansion will likely oppose it.

“I think that it will be a little more challenging than the Medicaid expansion initiative in that people, especially Republicans, may be a little more wary of a tax increase being specified,” she said. “Even if it’s a tax that may not directly affect many voters, they may still be cautious about voting for new taxes.”

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.