Luke Mayville Idaho Dems

Luke Mayville testifies to the Senate State Affairs Committee in the Lincoln Auditorium on Monday, March 11, 2019.

Out of the more than 100 people who signed up to testify today on SB 1159, Sen. C. Scott Grow’s bill to make it much harder to qualify an initiative or referendum measure for the Idaho ballot, just seven were called by Senate State Affairs Chair Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, to testify this morning; the last one of the seven, Food Producers of Idaho lobbyist Benjamin Kelly, wasn’t there any longer. That’s when the hearing ended.

Here are the six who did testify:

1 - Luke Mayville of Sandpoint, a political scientist and co-founder of Reclaim Idaho, the group that successfully mobilized volunteers to qualify Proposition 2, the Medicaid expansion initiative, for the November ballot, told the committee, “I’m from rural Idaho. … Our campaign started in rural Bonner County. … I drove 422 miles to be here today to make one simple point. It is already difficult — it is already extremely difficult to put an initiative on the ballot.” His comment drew loud applause, quickly gaveled down. “This bill in fact is not a solution to a problem at all,” Mayville said. “Instead it is an extreme restriction on one of the most cherished constitutional rights in Idaho.”

2 - Sam Sandmire, prominent Proposition 2 supporter, said, “Every now and then an issue arises that is so important that ordinary citizens put their lives on hold to exercise their constitutional right to bring the issue to a vote of the people. I urge you not to take that right away.” She said, “If this bill does pass, only big money, out-of-state dark money interests with millions of dollars at their disposal will ever be able to get an initiative on the ballot again.”

3 - Fred Birnbaum, lobbyist for the Idaho Freedom Foundation, said, “I think it’s reasonable to make this a very difficult process and to actually tighten it up. … Money can be brought into the state to pay signature-gatherers … really bypassing the deliberative process the Legislature engages in.”

4 - Tracy Olson, Ada County volunteer coordinator for Reclaim Idaho, said, “I just want to ask the committee: Why should the rights of citizens be curtailed just because one initiative is successful? … This bill isn’t an attempt to expand citizen engagement, it is a poorly disguised attempt to muzzle it. … Idahoans have the constitutional right to bring forth a ballot initiative. I expect you to vigorously protect that right.”

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5 - Russ Hendricks, lobbyist for the Idaho Farm Bureau, said, “Our members believe that SB 1159 will ensure greater involvement for the citizens of Idaho especially in the rural areas. … This is simply a vetting process so that enough citizens around the state believe that it is a good idea before it moves to the next step in the process.”

6 - A.J. Balukoff, longtime Boise school board member and former Democratic candidate for governor, noted that the bill affects both referenda and initiatives. “It wasn’t too many years ago when the Legislature passed the ‘Students Come First’ laws, and as a school board trustee, I felt like the Legislature didn’t understand the passionate opposition to those laws,” he said. “It galvanized a lot of people to gather the signatures and put the referenda on the ballot to repeal the Students Come First laws.” The process, he said, “gives ordinary citizens the opportunity to speak to the Legislature in a powerful way when they feel like the Legislature hasn’t taken the action that they should or they’ve taken action that maybe they should not have taken.”

Notably, it was after the passage of those referenda in 2012 — the first time Idaho voters had used a citizen ballot measure to repeal a law passed by the Legislature since the 1930s — that the Legislature enacted the current geographic distribution requirements in the state’s initiative process, requiring signatures to be collected from 6 percent of voters in 18 of the state’s 35 legislative districts. That change, proposed by the Idaho Farm Bureau, was touted as making sure rural voices were protected in the process.

Grow’s bill would require 10 percent of the signatures in 32 of the state’s 35 legislative districts, cut the signature-gathering period from 18 months to six months, and place a series of other restrictions on initiatives and referenda. In his opening comments to the committee, Grow said, “This right to propose voter initiatives can’t be carried to an extreme.”

Idaho Press reporter Savannah Cardon will have a full report later today; I'll post a link to it later along with other legislative news my colleagues are covering at today's extremely busy Statehouse, while I continue to recuperate at home from my recent appendix-removal surgery (and yes, I did crawl out of my sickbed to watch this hearing via livestream at my kitchen table, and now I really, really need a rest!).

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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