Kathy Griesmyer headshot

Kathy Griesmyer, a policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho.

BOISE — A bill to raise the threshold to get an initiative on the ballot will soon be before the full House.

After about three hours of public testimony, almost all of it opposed to Senate Bill 1159, the House State Affairs Committee voted 10-5 Tuesday to advance the measure. Reps. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard and Linda Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, joined the panel’s three Democrats to oppose it.

The bill, which passed the Senate by one vote last week, would increase the number of signatures needed to get an initiative on the ballot from 6 percent of registered voters in 18 of the state’s 35 legislative districts to 10 percent in 32 of 35 districts. It would cut the amount of time to gather signatures from 18 months to six, and it would add a few other requirements such as that an initiative would have to include a fiscal impact statement and proposed funding source.

The bill’s House co-sponsors include the entire Republican leadership and local lawmakers Reps. Randy Armstrong, R-Inkom, and Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls. With lawmakers trying to finish their business soon and get out of Boise for the year, it could come to a vote soon.

The bill comes on the heels of last year’s successful initiative to enact Medicaid expansion over the objections of many Republican lawmakers, and Democrats have taken to calling it the “Revenge on Voters Act.” Republican supporters of the bill say it is needed to make sure rural voters have a voice in what gets on the ballot, saying it would be possible for an initiative to get on the ballot just by qualifying in districts in Kootenai, Canyon, Ada and Bonneville counties. Co-sponsor Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, said he worried about rural voters being drowned out as Idaho’s urban population grows.

“When they come to this body, rural voices have the exact same weight as an urban voice when we vote on legislation,” he said.

Sponsor Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, gave examples of other states that have higher signature thresholds, shorter signature gathering periods or broader geographic distribution requirements than Idaho does now. For example, he said, Utah has a law similar to what Idaho is considering and there were still three initiatives on last year’s ballot.

“If this is going to be law, and going around elected representation, we should make sure the majority of Idahoans want that to happen,” he said.

About half of all states allow voter-initiated ballot measures of some sort, although some only allow it for constitutional amendments. Idaho is one of six that allows legislation via initiative, Dixon said.

While some may have more difficult ballot qualification rules than Idaho in some aspects, the bill’s opponents argued the changes, when taken together, would make Idaho one of if not the most difficult state in the country in which to get an initiative on the ballot. According to an analysis by Colin Nash, a Senate intern who briefly filled in as a legislator for Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, earlier this year, raising the threshold would mean you need 91,761 signatures to get an initiative on the ballot. This is compared to 55,057 now, and would, when weighted for population, be the second-most signatures in the country, beyond only Wyoming.

Also, Nash wrote, the other states with a 10 percent threshold base it on the number of votes cast in an election, not the number of registered voters. Utah, for example, bases it on the number of votes in the last presidential election.

“It shifts the balance of power toward government by removing the ability to petition government for a redress of grievances, as stated in the First Amendment,” said Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, who isn’t on the committee but came to testify against the bill.

Kathy Griesmyer, policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, said the bill would likely lead to a lawsuit if it passes, due to the wide disparities in the number of registered voters in some of Idaho’s legislative districts. Ada County’s District 14 had almost 38,000 registered voters as of earlier this month, the most in the state, while Mini-Cassia’s District 27, which has the least, has about 17,000 registered voters.

Thirty-two people testified against the bill, four in favor — one member of the public and lobbyists for the Food Producers of Idaho, the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation and the Idaho Freedom Foundation. IFF Vice President Fred Birnbaum pointed to the $500,000 the Washington, D.C.-based progressive group the Fairness Project spent to help gather signatures for Medicaid expansion and said tightening the requirements would help keep “big outside money from D.C.” out of Idaho.

“The current process does need to be revised because, as it stands, big money is coming in, and big money can be concentrated in urban areas to influence the outcome of the proposition,” Birnbaum said.

However, the bill’s opponents worried making the rules tougher would have the opposite effect by making it impossible to get anything on the ballot without deep-pocketed backers.

“It’s going to be almost impossible for a grassroots initiative to get on the ballot, to get all the signatures necessary, without big money,” said William Brudenell of Boise, who helped gather signatures for Proposition 2.

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

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