Lawmakers to consider bill to toughen initiatives next week

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) A panel of lawmakers has opted to hold a bill that would toughen the requirements to get an initiative on a ballot in committee for now, but the legislation will likely come up for consideration again sometime next week.

Members of the Idaho Senate State Affairs Committee heard testimony from about 60 people on Friday most of them opposed to the legislation before unanimously agreeing to end the public hearing and hold the bill in committee for now.

Idaho Senate State Affairs chairwoman Sen. Patti Anne Lodge says the committee will most likely consider the bill again sometime next week.

The bill from Eagle Republican Sen. C. Scott Grow would require those seeking ballot initiatives to get signatures from 10 percent of registered voters in 32 of Idaho's 35 districts, compared to the current rules that require signatures from 6 percent of voters in 18 districts. The bill would also cut the time allowed to gather the signatures from 18 months to six months.

Like previous bills to toughen Idaho's initiative and referendum requirements, Grow's legislation comes in the wake of a voter-approved initiative to expand Medicaid coverage to people who previously didn't qualify and couldn't afford private insurance. Grow has said his proposal has nothing to do with the Medicaid expansion initiative, but instead seeks to ensure that rural voters are included when petitioners seek to get initiatives or referendums on the ballot.

Still, some critics have dubbed it the "revenge on voters" bill.

"Idaho has always encouraged its fiercely independent citizens to let their voices be heard," said Carmel Crock, a Boise resident who was involved in the effort to get the Medicaid expansion initiative on the ballot last year. Crock said the current initiative rules are already difficult to meet.

"It is a daunting, daunting process," she said. "I can't imagine making this more difficult, or making this the most restrictive initiative ballot law in the nation."

Much of the debate centered around the Idaho Constitution, which enshrines the public's right to bypass the Legislature via initiatives and referendums. The Constitution also grants the Legislature the power to set the conditions under which initiatives and referendums can get on the ballot.

Jim Hanson, a former lawmaker, was among several who told the committee the bill could risk violating the Constitution by making the requirements to get an initiative on the ballot so strict as to be virtually impossible.

"Thirty years ago I sat in your seats. My father took me aside and reminded me that collectively we're giants in our system," said Hanson. "And we have a giant strength, but we hold in our hands something very delicate called the Idaho Constitution."

He said 100 years of elections in Idaho with only about 15 initiatives or referendums successfully making it to the ballot during that time shows that "the Idaho people do not overuse the power they have in their laps," and urged lawmakers to set the bill aside.

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