(Editor's Note: After this column was written and posted, Governor Brad Little signed this bill. The points made in the column, however, remain in force.)
The Legislature has sent a bill to the Governor’s desk that will make it virtually impossible to put an initiative or referendum on the general election ballot. It requires valid signatures of at least 6% of registered voters in each and every one of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts to put an initiative or referendum up for a vote --a herculean task.
Legislators claim Senate Bill 1110 is essential to protect the interests of rural Idaho, which is pure baloney. The Bill is designed to keep the voters of Idaho, both urban and rural, from using their constitutional power to propose needed legislation or to kill wretched legislation like the Luna Laws.
Idaho voters wrote the initiative and referendum into the Idaho Constitution in 1912 precisely to get around an unresponsive state legislature. The move was prompted by experience in other states where legislatures were bought and paid for by railroads, oil companies, and other powerful monopolies that were victimizing farmers. The farmers were not able to overcome the legions of lobbyists that the big money interests deployed in those legislatures, but the initiative and referendum gave them an avenue of relief--a legislative lifeline around legislatures controlled by special interests.
The supporters of the initiative-killing bill cannot point to any initiative or referendum that has ever discriminated against rural Idaho. After the Legislature stubbornly refused for years to accept millions of federal dollars to expand the state Medicaid program, people from Bonner County stepped forward with an initiative to get the job done.
Voters in many rural counties gave strong support to the Medicaid expansion initiative because it provided medical care to thousands of modest-income country folk and saved rural hospitals from going belly up. The initiative received a 60.4% vote in Adams County, 54.8% in Clark County, 56.7% in Lemhi County, 58.3% in Shoshone County, 57% in Jerome County, and 51.4% in Owyhee County.
The popularity of a public policy, like Medicaid expansion, can’t be accurately judged by the number of people across the state who will sign a petition. Having grown up in a tight-knit rural community, I can say that a lot of folks don’t like to publicize where they stand on a contested issue and won’t sign a public petition. But they are happy to support their position in the secrecy of the ballot box and that’s where we find out where the majority stands.
The initiative and referendum have benefited rural voters as much as urban ones over the years. Rural voters used the referendum in 1986 to resurrect the Right-To-Work law, after it was vetoed by Governor Evans. It is not likely that most of the signatures necessary to get the referendum on the ballot came from urban-dwelling liberal hippies who had it in for rural Idaho. Country folk got it on the ballot and over the top.
While legislators claim the strict signature requirements will protect the rural population from citified people, the bill will give city dwellers a veto over any ballot measure that rural residents want. For example, the Legislature has refused for years to make the school funding formula fair for rural school districts. Senate Bill 1110 would make it impossible for country voters to cure the inequity with an initiative. In fact, any measure that would benefit rural Idaho could be kept off of the ballot by any one of a number of urban legislative districts under Senate Bill 1110.
The initiative and referendum were born to protect the rights of country dwellers against legislatures controlled by the lobbyists of monied interests. Now, the lobbyists and their legislators are trying to make these populist measures inoperable so as to maintain their iron grip on the law-making process. Senate Bill 1110 would slash the legislative lifeline of both rural and urban Idaho, making it impossible to get around a power-grabbing legislature. It is essential that Governor Little wield his veto stamp to protect the people.