If Idaho senators give the people a choice on the initiative, make it a real choice | opinion

Sarah A. Miller/smiller@idahostatesman.com

This Wednesday morning, the Senate State Affairs Committee is taking testimony on Senate Joint Resolution 101. It’s a proposal to increase the number of legislative districts where signature gathering is required to get an issue on the ballot to all 35, rather than the current 18.

Testimony is leaning heavily against (as of a bit after 9 a.m., no member of the public testified in favor.) And that isn’t surprising.

The senators on the committee are pretending to give the people of Idaho a choice — a constitutional amendment requires a vote of the general public, after all. But that is not what they are doing.

They are offering the people a one-way ratchet. Turn it, and it becomes impossible to get something on the ballot. Leave it be and nothing changes.

The people should be given a real choice.

The people have a legitimate interest in not being flooded with so many ballot initiatives that it becomes burdensome and counterproductive, as has happened in California. They also have an interest being able to exercise their initiative rights on important matters, not to have them effectively regulated out of existence.

Since this is a matter of striking a balance, use the amendment to let them turn the dial to the level of difficulty they prefer. If the Legislature is going to give the people a choice, give them a real choice. If the option to ratchet down restrictions is on the ballot, so should the option to loosen them.

Amend SJR 101 so that voters can decide whether to 1. require 6% from all 35 legislative districts (more restrictive), 2. require 6% from 18 of 35 legislative districts (status quo), or 3. require 6% from 9 of 35 legislative districts (less restrictive.)

We have a pretty good notion what all of these scenarios would look like.

  • Under Scenario 1, initiatives would essentially never make the ballot even if they’re overwhelmingly popular.

  • Under Scenario 2, initiatives very rarely make the ballot, even when they’re overwhelmingly popular. Medicaid expansion did make the ballot and pass. Legalizing medical cannabis, by contrast, is overwhelmingly popular but simply doesn’t have a large enough organization behind it to meet the district requirements.

  • Under Scenario 3, initiatives would still be uncommon, but the threshold would be easier. Voters would probably get to vote on medical cannabis and other issues. There would probably also be more initiatives with only regional support, that would likely fail when they were put to a vote in the general election.

Because what’s going on right now in the Senate State Affairs Committee is not an effort to give the people a choice. It’s more akin to a practice Republican lawmakers regularly condemn: a school that re-runs the same bond five elections in a row until it happens to pass. (The main difference being that it’s harder to pass a bond than amend the Idaho Constitution, absurdly.)

If lawmakers are going to do that, fine. But they should not pretend they are trying to give people a choice. They aren’t.

Bryan Clark is an opinion writer for the Idaho Statesman based in eastern Idaho.