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Bills for Idaho Legislature's private legal team in initiative law case: $110,000 and counting

Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said. “The Legislature thought it was important to defend the position that we had taken.”

BOISE, Idaho — Editor's Note: This article was originally published by the Idaho Press.

So far, the Idaho Legislature has been billed for more than $110,000 in fees for its private legal team that’s representing it in a court challenge of a restrictive new voter initiative law.

The initial invoices, $55,078.50 each for the House and the Senate, cover only work done in May by the law firm Holland & Hart. The Idaho Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case June 29.

House and Senate GOP leaders opted to hire Holland & Hart attorney William Myers III, the former solicitor of the U.S. Department of Interior, rather than rely on the Idaho Attorney General’s office, which already is defending the law on behalf of the state. So both legal teams argued in favor of the law and submitted legal briefs to the court, with taxpayers funding both.

The other side in the case consists of the citizens group Reclaim Idaho, sponsor of the successful 2018 voter initiative to expand Medicaid; the Committee to Protect and Defend the Idaho Constitution, a group led by two former Idaho attorneys general; and retired Deputy Attorney General Mike Gilmore, who filed his own lawsuit challenging the law as unconstitutional.

“I think there’s a lot at stake,” said Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise. “The Legislature thought it was important to defend the position that we had taken.”

House Speaker Scott Bedke said, “The Legislature has excellent representation from Holland & Hart, and they have a success record to prove it. I don’t think we have any regrets.”

“We want to defend it fully,” he said of the controversial new initiative law, SB 1110.

Idaho’s previous initiative law required signatures from 6% of the registered voters in 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts to qualify an initiative or referendum for the Idaho ballot. The new law upped that to 6% of the registered voters in each and every legislative district. Reclaim Idaho argued the new standard is impossible for a citizens group to meet, and effectively nullifies the right to initiative and referendum, which have been guaranteed to citizens in the Idaho Constitution for more than a century.

The Idaho Press obtained the legal billings under the Idaho Public Records Act.

State lawmakers this year replenished their Legislative Legal Defense Fund, which had fallen to a zero balance for the House and $286,170 for the Senate, with a $4 million infusion of taxpayer money. The infusion came directly from the state’s general fund, the main funding source for everything from schools to prisons.

The Legislative Legal Defense Fund, which was created in 2012, is separate from the state’s Constitutional Defense Fund, which has spent millions in recent years to pay the other sides’ attorney fees in major lawsuits that the state has lost. That fund is controlled by both the legislative and executive branches of state government.

The legislative fund can be spent at the discretion of the House speaker and the Senate president pro tem, for legal fees whether or not they involve lawsuits. The $4 million funding bill, SB 1022, passed both houses on party-line votes with all Republicans voting in favor and all Democrats opposed. Gov. Brad Little signed it into law March 26.

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.