Idaho Press Club's Headliner luncheon

From left, Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, House Speaker Scott Bedke, and Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett address the Idaho Press Club on Tuesday, March 12, 2019 at Beside Bardenay in downtown Boise.

Idaho legislative leaders, from both houses and both parties, addressed the Idaho Press Club today at a “Headliner” luncheon, and both their opening comments and the on-the-record Q-and-A with the press yielded newsy, interesting and enlightening stuff about the current happenings in the Idaho Legislature. Among the big topics addressed: Sen. C. Scott Grow’s controverisal bill to make it harder to qualify a voter initiative for the ballot in Idaho; Medicaid expansion; and hemp legalization. We’ll have full coverage in tomorrow’s Idaho Press, plus I’ll share some highlights here, starting with the initiatives bill (I’ll follow up with subsequent posts about Medicaid expansion and hemp):

House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, called SB 1159, Sen. C. Scott Grow’s bill to make it much harder to qualify an initiative or referendum measure for the Idaho ballot, “absolutely about retribution” against voters for passing Proposition 2 to expand Medicaid, which the Legislature had resisted for six years despite a health coverage gap in Idaho that affected an estimated 60,000 Idahoans. “There is no doubt under any circumstance that this is a punitive bill designed to retaliate against a successful ballot measure that people (in the Legislature) didn’t agree with,” Erpelding said. Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said, “The timing is very unfortunate in my mind. … It’s being seen as some kind of retribution. Obviously, it doesn’t affect the Medicaid issue itself in any way, but it’s seen like we’re being poor sports. I don’t think that’s the intent.”

The last two times the Legislature tried to make initiatives and referenda harder to get on the ballot in Idaho, in 2013 and in 1997, were after, respectively, the passage of the three referenda in 2012 to repeal the school reform bills known as the Luna laws — the first time Idaho voters had taken that step since the 1930s — and after Idaho voters’ enactment of a term limits initiative that Idaho lawmakers subsequently repealed. The 1997 restrictions on the initiative process were overturned in federal court as an unconstitutional violation of the one-person, ove-vote principle, a decision that was upheld by the 9th Circuit in 2003 in the ICUB (Idaho Coalition United for Bears) vs. Cenarrusa case.

Hill said, “Nobody wants to make it so easy that we’re just going to have all these different things to vote on. The world is changing — it’s much easier to communicate now, it’s a lot easier to go out and communicate to people that we need to get the signatures, it’s easier to recruit volunteers to help with it. … So, he said, the state needs to “adapt.”

Erpelding shot back, “The argument that it’s easier to get volunteers now is flat not true. I knocked doors in Caldwell. I did 30 signatures in Caldwell in three and a half hours. … You can’t sign people up on the internet. … It may help get volunteer, but it doesn’t mean you don’t have to train those volunteers, get those volunteers on the ground.”

Proposition 2 was the first voter-initiated ballot measure to pass since the Luna Laws referendum in 2012.

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said there have been fewer than 15 successful initiatives or referenda in more than 100 years of Idaho history. “It is the most restrictive in the nation if we pass this,” she said. She said she requested an Idaho Attorney General’s opinion on the bill, which she just received yesterday afternoon. “They said by the strict standards they didn’t deem it unconstitutional, but that it would be extremely difficult in the 180 days to do everything that was asking in that bill.”

Stennett added: “I know for myself I’ll fight every day to make sure the public has the ability to express themselves in an initiative or referendum process.”

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “I am not up in arms on this. Let’s have the debate, let’s see where it goes. We’ll see if it gets over to the House. Is 180 days enought time? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But as far as touching base in each of the legislative districts, I don’t think that’s a huge hurdle.”

Hill said he thought lawmakers had been working on the bill for years. “It’s a way that our Constitution allows people to work around the legislative process,” he said of the initiative and referendum, which are in the Idaho Constitution. “I think we need to preserve that way, but I think we need to be careful and I think it needs to have some hurdles that people have to jump over. Are these hurdles too high? Time will tell.”

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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