“How do you know when a politician is lying?” goes the old joke. “Their lips are moving.”
Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-Inkom, showed through his actions Friday that this cynical generalization isn’t right, even as Sen. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, did his level best to prove the joke correct.
The Senate, by a razor-thin 18-17 margin, passed Grow’s bill. If it becomes law, it will gut the right of the ballot initiative. The House is expected to take it up this week.
Grow’s defense of his bill was an example of sophistry without parallel this session. His public arguments supporting the bill are so flimsy that it’s clear there’s some other motivation behind it, and Guthrie had the honesty to raise what that might be.
Grow warned that Oregon and California are swamped with ballot initiatives, which is both true and completely irrelevant. Idaho had two ballot initiatives last year but hadn’t had another for more than a decade.
Grow’s key justification was that his bill will give greater representation to rural voters. In fact, it works to disenfranchise them.
Imagine rural Idahoans have an issue they want to be addressed — for example, the continuous threat that rural hospitals will go under, leaving them only very distant health care access. Under existing law, it would be incredibly difficult for them to gather enough signatures in sprawling rural areas to get their preferred solution — say, a grant program to help keep rural hospitals operating — on the ballot.
How could a problem like that be fixed?
If a bill honestly aimed to make sure rural voices were heard, a number of solutions suggest themselves. The state might extend the time period in which to gather signatures. It might lower the number of signatures that had to be gathered, particularly in rural areas where signature-gathering is more burdensome.
Grow’s proposal? Make the hardship worse. Shorten the time frame in which such signatures could be collected and increase the number which must be gathered. In short, make sure rural voters have no voice at all, but make sure that urban voices won’t be heard either.
In stepped Guthrie. He addressed the “elephant in the room” that Grow avoided — the possibility that an initiative to legalize either medical or recreational marijuana usage could land on the ballot.
If the goal of this bill is to avoid that outcome, it will fail there too.
Raising the signature-gathering burden means the only remaining voices will be those with very deep pockets, those who can hire a small army of paid signature gatherers to round up votes all over the state, as the backers of Proposition 1 did.
Prop 1 was the effort to legalize slot-machine-like betting terminals at horse tracks around the state. Idaho’s horse racing industry is relatively small, but it nevertheless came up with nearly $8 million to get it on the ballot and make their case to voters.
Forbes puts the total value of the legal marijuana industry at $34 billion. If the marijuana industry wants an initiative to legalize it in Idaho, they’ll have a much larger war chest than the horse racing industry did.
So, instead of a medical marijuana initiative crafted by patients, doctors and activists, a marijuana initiative will be crafted by a big industry with a profit motive. The “elephant in the room” won’t be banished. It’ll just be wearing an expensive suit rather than a Grateful Dead T-shirt.
Many Republican senators broke with Senate leadership to oppose the bill. Sen. David Lent, R-Idaho Falls, did so, and he should be commended for it.
The most vocal was Guthrie, who gave the rest of the Senate majority a much-needed reminder of the ultimate source of their authority and legitimacy.
“How much power do we need?” he asked. “... Lost in the discussion is the most important branch (of government) — that’s our citizens. Keep in mind, good senators, without them, there’s no us.”
We hope members of the House this week remember their oaths to uphold the Idaho Constitution better than 18 senators did Friday, the way Guthrie remembered his.