NOTE: On April 5, Governor Little vetoed Senate Bill 1159, the initiative restriction bill.
Lord Acton is supposed to have warned that power corrupts, but Robert Caro, author of the multiple volumes of biography of Lyndon Johnson, has a better formulation: Power reveals.
And so now in the case of Idaho Governor Brad Little, and what he does about the measure or measures which seek to restrict or limit statewide ballot access for citizen initiatives.
As this is written – on Thursday – the governor has not acted or publicly announced his intentions. He might possibly have done one or both by the time you read this; but in any event, the point to be drawn from whatever happens next will remain.
The trigger, if you’ve not followed the Idaho Legislature the last few weeks, is a bill – followed by a related “trailer” bill intended to modify its effects somewhat – which changes the specifics of the legal hurdles that must be cleared by activists seeking to place an initiative on the ballot. Little said he wants to examine the two-bill package carefully before announcing his intent. That’s not an unusual precaution, likely wise.
Most governor vetoes of legislation fall into one of two categories (sometimes they overlap). Some of those bills are small in scope, minor in interest, and some troublesome issue has been located within, which may lead to a better or corrected version later. Some of those trashed bills may be more significant but create a problem for the governor with some constituency, in which case a veto might be the efficient thing to do.
Occasionally, not especially often, a high-profile bill with actual strong legislative leadership support, but with very strong external opposition, comes along. Governors must hate that: They’re stuck with a no-win decision, meaning that they’re going to make someone mad, no way around it. Someone the governor has to deal with, which means life could become uncomfortable at least for a while.
That is Little’s situation with the ballot initiative bills: He cannot avoid infuriating someone. It might be the leadership of the legislature and its majority party, most of which has strongly supported the bills (or at least the idea), but has taken considerable heat for it. The emotional response from that quarter (and several large or well connected interest groups, such as the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which also have signed on with it), may pick up on the concept of Little as a betrayer of them.
Or he can infuriate practically everyone else – or so it would seem, given that the governor’s office estimates that communications from the public have run upwards of 99 percent in favor of a veto.
That’s the political and emotional calculus. There’s also this: If Little doesn’t veto the bills seen (by a wide range of people including a string of former attorneys general and the one living ex-secretary of state) as likely to be squashed by a court, he would run the risk of being seen as rolling over for legislative leadership and well-connected interest groups.
That would be an unfortunate perception of a governor who – so say a number of legislators – has been vastly more meticulous in carefully reviewing and analyzing legislation than many of his predecessors were.
But this also gets at the question many people had about Brad Little, which is not a criticism, but rather an uncertainty because of the lack of a previous hard test. Not about his intellect, which is widely thought to be among the best in the history of Idaho governors. Not, either, about his good intentions to do positive things for the state. But rather his willingness to stand up to people who also are empowered, in their own ways, and are willing to get in his face. How does he deal with that?
In Brad Little’s long public career, that kind of challenge never has materially emerged until now.
So how Little handles the veto power he now possesses will tell us volumes about who he is and what his governorship will be about. Watch closely how he handles it.