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More than 16,000 people sign petition to oppose Idaho ballot initiative law

"They want to usurp the power of the people, of the municipalities," former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones said of the legislature's bill.

BOISE, Idaho — Former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones on Thursday delivered a petition with more than 16,000 signatures to Gov. Brad Little's office, urging him to veto SB 1110, a bill approved by both the Idaho House and Senate that would make it more difficult to qualify voter initiatives for the Idaho ballot. 

"I think it's constitutionally deficient," Jones told the Idaho Press in a phone interview Thursday. "The people are supposedly the ones who have the power under the Idaho Constitution. They granted themselves the power to initiate legislation and to kill bills that the Senate and the House adopted … Now the Legislature is essentially trying to make it impossible for the people to execute their legislative power."

SB 1110 requires signatures of 6% of registered voters in all 35 of Idaho’s legislative districts in order to qualify any initiative for the Idaho ballot. The current law requires 6% from 18 of the 35 districts. On Wednesday, the House passed the bill, 51-18, after it earlier passed the Senate, 26-9.

The bill now heads to the governor's office, where it awaits a signature or veto. Jones is hoping for the latter.

"When you have to get a minimum number of signatures from each and every one of the 35 legislative districts, it's a very difficult chore, unless you have large money pockets, and usually the people don't," he said. 

The governor's office has received between 400 and 500 phone calls and about the same amount of emails related to SB 1110, spokeswoman Marissa Morrison told the Idaho Press in an email.

The petition is a result of a signature-gathering campaign led by Reclaim Idaho, Conservation Voters for Idaho and others. Signatures represent Idahoans from all 44 counties and 200 different towns and cities. Among them is Eden, Jones' hometown, population about 400. While legislators in support of SB 1110 argued it would favor rural districts in the ballot initiative process, Jones pointed to petition-signers in Eden who oppose the bill. 

"The legislators have misread the voters," he said. "They want to usurp the power of the people, of the municipalities, and they want to deprive the governor of his authority so that all roads to power go through the Legislature."

Meanwhile, Reclaim Idaho, the group that led the Medicaid expansion initiative, has filed with the Secretary of State a new ballot initiative that, if passed, would restore the current signature requirement, if SB 1110 is signed into law. The initiative — described as an "insurance policy" — would only run if Little signs SB 1110, and the law survives court challenges, which are expected.  

“If a highly motivated group of citizens in North Idaho or Eastern Idaho wants to place an initiative on the ballot, they shouldn’t be required to collect large numbers of signatures from all 13 of the districts in Ada and Canyon counties,” said Luke Mayville, founder of Reclaim Idaho, in a news release. “It’s hard enough to collect signatures from 6% of the state’s registered voters.”

Few voter initiatives have qualified in recent decades. After the successful Medicaid expansion initiative in 2018, the Legislature passed even more restrictive legislation to restrict the initiative process in 2019; Little vetoed it, warning that it would likely land the state in court and allow federal judges to decide Idaho’s initiative process rules.

When asked about this year’s bill, Little has advised people to look back at his 2019 veto message. The vetoed 2019 bill, proposed by Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, would have required signatures from 10% of registered voters in 32 of the 35 legislative districts, while also cutting the time allowed for signature-gathering from 18 months to six months and proposing other restrictions.

Ryan Suppe is the Boise City Hall and Treasure Valley business reporter for the Idaho Press. Contact him at 208-344-2055 (ext. 3038). Follow him on Twitter @salsuppe.