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The Senate State Affairs Committee is continuing its hearing this morning on SB 1110, Sen. Steve Vick’s bill to make it much more difficult to qualify a voter initiative for the Idaho ballot, by requiring signatures from 6% of qualified electors in all 35 of Idaho’s legislative districts, rather than in 18 of them as under current law. In an hour and a half of testimony, 23 people from all over the state testified this morning, all but three opposed to the bill. “Having the Legislature pass a bill that takes our citizens’ rights away by making the process virtually impossible just does not seem right, in a state that values personal freedom,” said Brian Bledsoe of Post Falls.

John Orlovich told the committee, “On rare occasions the public is in such disagreement with the Idaho Legislature that they need to have their voices heard in an authoritative manner.” He noted that examples over the years have included Medicaid expansion, the homeowner’s initiative and the rollback of the Luna laws. “The citizens’ constitutional right to the initiative process has already been modified by law several times in recent history in order to give better balance to all districts. It has also made the bar higher … This new bill now seeks to make that bar so high that only one district has veto power over an initiative that might be approved by all the other 34 districts. ... I believe that this bill sets this bar too high.”

Lauren Bramwell of the ACLU of Idaho said, “We urge you, members of the committee, to honor Idaho’s constitutional promise to its people and vote against legislation that will result in unnecessary litigation.” She said, “Direct democracy is at the heart of Idaho’s values. Article 1 Section 2 of Idaho’s Constitution provides that all political power is inherent in the people. … Article 3, Section 1 of the Idaho state Constitution further provides that the people reserve to themselves the power to propose laws and to enact the same at the polls independent of the Legislature.”

Malinda Ritts of Moscow said, “I’m speaking as a proud north Idahoan. … I’ve heard a lot earlier in this session about the three branches of the government trying to check each other but … also enshrined in our Constitution” is “we, the citizens,” through the initiative process. “To me, this is an important check on our government … especially in a state that values our individual freedom.”

Retired BSU political scientist Gary Moncrief also testified against the bill. “There is simply no evidence that rural interests are under-represented in Idaho politics,” he told the senators. “For example, the governor is from Emmett, the Secretary of State is from Midvale, the superintendent of public instruction is from Mountain Home. The speaker of the House is from Oakley. The speaker before him was from Midvale. The speaker before him was from Burley.”

Moncrief said, “There is an issue in American politics, in states in particular, with the creation of legislative supermajorities.” Idaho’s supermajority Republican Party controls 80% of the Legislature, much higher than the number of Idahoans who vote for the party in elections. “This is true in almost all states,” he said, with the party that has the legislative majority over-represented compared to the electorate. “Supermajority parties occasionally misunderstand or misinterpret public opinion because they’re so large that that’s all they hear,” he said, saying that’s why the powers of initiative and referendum are so important.

Said Alicia Abbott of Sandpoint, "It's our constitutional right."

Brett Casperson, a farmer from Lava Hot Springs, spoke in favor of the bill. He said he thought Medicaid expansion still would have made the ballot under the bill, “because people wanted it. If it’s a good bill, a good initiative, it will pass.” He said, “If you can’t get 6% of registered voters from every legislative district, it’s probably not a good idea.” Just two others, Mary Schwartz of Cambridge and Idaho Farm Bureau lobbyist Russ Hendricks, spoke in favor of the bill this morning.

Luke Mayville said, “Our Constitution does not say that all political power is inherent in the executive branch and it does not say that all political power is inherent in the legislative branch. Our Constitution says, and I quote, that all political power is inherent in the people. Now here in Idaho for a century the citizens have had a constitutional power to initiate laws. SB 1110 would restrict that right significantly.” He said, “If Sen. Vick and others want to make such a sweeping change to our Constitution, they should be willing to propose a constitutional amendment,” and submit it to the voters.

Russ Belville noted that an initiative campaign already has been authorized to begin collecting signatures for a medical marijuana initiative in Idaho under the current rules, and now lawmakers are attempting to change the rules while that effort is in progress. “Best to let sleeping dogs lie, senators,” he said. “Eighteen districts haven’t been challenged in federal court. Thirty-five districts will be.”

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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