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BOISE — Gov. Brad Little has signed SB 1110, the restrictive new bill on voter initiatives, into law.

“Whether SB 1110 amounts to an impermissible restriction in violation of our Constitution is highly fact-dependent and, ultimately, a question for the Idaho judiciary to decide,” Little wrote in his transmittal letter to the Idaho Senate on Saturday. “I also expect the federal courts may be called to determine whether SB 1110 violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

Reclaim Idaho, the group that pushed the successful Medicaid expansion initiative in 2018, immediately announced it plans to challenge the new law in court.

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, learned of the decision Saturday morning when she spoke with Little. “I got off the phone with him about 10 minutes ago,” she told the Idaho Press. “He told me he signed it. I told him we were indescribably disappointed that he was willing to protect the executive powers but not willing to protect the people’s powers,” she said.

SB 1110, one of the most controversial bills of the legislative session, would expand the signature requirement to qualify a voter initiative for the ballot from 6% of registered voters in 18 of the 35 legislative districts, to 6% in each of the 35 legislative districts, without exception. Testimony at public hearings on the bills was overwhelmingly against it, and 16,000 people signed petitions to the governor asking him to veto it.

Under the bill, while the total number of signatures required still would be 6% of registered voters statewide, the change would make it much more difficult to qualify an initiative or referendum for the Idaho ballot, essentially allowing a single legislative district veto power over the rest of the state. The right to initiative and referendum is guaranteed in the Idaho Constitution, but lawmakers have been unhappy with its use by citizens, including the 2018 passage of the Medicaid expansion initiative and the 2012 passage of Propositions 1, 2 and 3 to repeal controversial education reform measures lawmakers had passed, nicknamed the “Luna Laws.”

Little vetoed farther-reaching restrictions on initiatives in 2019, saying he feared they’d land the state in court and let a federal judge determine Idaho’s initiative rules.

“In 2019, I vetoed SB 1159 and HB 296 because I had serious concerns for the constitutional sufficiency of the bills and the unintended consequences of their passage,” Little wrote in his Saturday letter. “I expressed my support for the Legislature’s goal of ensuring that the rights of all Idahoans — not just those in urban areas — have a voice in Idaho’s initiative process. However, I believed those bills went too far.”

“I have similar concerns with SB 1110,” he wrote, “but I believe the bill presents a much closer call.”

Little noted that the Idaho Constitution, in Article III, Section 1, “guarantees to the people an initiative and referendum process.” He wrote, “I urge the Legislature to ensure those rights remain accessible to the people.” But he also wrote that he believes the Legislature has “broad discretion” to place conditions on ballot access when that right is exercised.

“I appreciate that signing this bill will be controversial,” he wrote.

Luke Mayville, co-founder of Reclaim Idaho, said in a news release shortly after the signing Saturday, “In the face of massive public opposition to this legislation, the governor has turned his back on the people and sided with special-interest groups. Clearly, this anti-initiative legislation is unconstitutional. It makes it virtually impossible for everyday citizens to exercise their initiative rights. This fight is far from over, and we now look to the courts to uphold the Idaho Constitution.”

Last week, Reclaim Idaho filed a ballot initiative it’s calling the “Idaho Initiative Rights Act of 2022.” If enacted, it would roll back Idaho’s signature requirements for initiatives to their 2012 level, requiring signatures from 6% of registered voters statewide but imposing no geographic requirements. Lawmakers added the 18-district requirement after the passage of Propositions 1, 2 and 3 in 2012.

Reclaim Idaho said in its news release that it “plans to run the initiative only in the event that SB 1110 survives court challenges.”

Rubel said of her conversation with the governor, “I didn’t really get a great explanation from him about it.”

“I suspect that there was some calculus going on of how many vetoes he was able to get upheld out of legislative Republicans. I can only speculate that this was perhaps a way to bolster chances of maintaining the vetoes on executive powers, but personally, I feel like the people of Idaho were thrown under the bus this morning.”

A day earlier, Little had announced he would veto both major emergency powers bills passed by the Legislature this session, which seek to trim the governor’s powers during disaster emergencies in favor of increasing the powers of the Legislature. GOP legislative leaders reacted defiantly, and the Senate is likely to vote on overriding the first veto on Monday morning.

Rubel said of the initiative bill, “This will clearly go to court, and I hope the people of Idaho are able to prevail there.”

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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