The big news last week was Gov. Brad Little’s veto of SB 1159, the hotly debated measure to dramatically increase the requirements to qualify an Idaho initiative or referendum for placement on the Idaho ballot.
In his veto message, Little stated: “I reluctantly vetoed S 1159 and plan to veto H 296 because I question the constitutional sufficiency of the bills and the unintended consequences of their passage.” H 296 was the so-called trailer bill that reduced some of the requirements for ballot access. From his message, it is clear Little believed that the measure would be struck by the courts.
The Idaho Senate passed the bill by only a single vote and the House by 40-30. A veto override is unlikely given those margins as a two-thirds vote is required.
If some wondered whether Little would stand up to a Legislature of his own party, that question has been answered. He will.
Even more interesting is what will happen in the future on the same topic.
First, the recently launched effort to repeal S 1159 is now moot. That will be good for those who backed the bill in that voters will not be stirred up through a ballot measure to punish those who passed it. That bodes well for the Idaho GOP in 2020.
Second, there is still the question of whether the Idaho ballot access process itself should be modified. One of the key justifications was to preserve the voice of rural Idaho. Supporters of S 1159 argued that, currently, a measure could reach the ballot through signature gathering only focused on Idaho’s big population counties.
One approach would be to require a certain minimum quantity of signatures from a portion of counties. For instance the current requirement of 6% of registered voters statewide and in 18 of 35 legislative districts could be replaced by provision requiring 6% of voters statewide but at least 3% in something like two thirds of Idaho counties. That would require signature gatherers to engage all parts of Idaho but would not create an unsurmountable barrier to ballot access.
Third, it would be reasonable to explore what information must be provided before and during the qualification process. The idea of a fiscal note is reasonable and it could be required on the petition.
Fourth, backers of S 1159 expressed much angst over the influence of out of state groups. Much of that was focused on some groups from out of Idaho that pushed Medicaid expansion. The concern is understandable. A remedy is not easy because of constraints imposed by the U.S. Constitution. The best that can be hoped is full and repeated disclosure of the source of funds and expenditures by supporters and opponents. The Legislature has taken some positive steps on this general issue this session but may want to revisit the issue of campaign disclosure.
I also have a somewhat radical proposal for consideration. What if instead of making ballot access harder the threshold for passage was modified? Right now an Idaho initiative or referendum requires a simple majority to prevail. Another approach would be to require some sort of supermajority, maybe 55%, to insure that any successful vote represents a broad consensus of the Idaho electorate.
Such a radical change should probably be adopted through a constitutional amendment passed by two-thirds of each legislative house and affirmed at the ballot box. But, there is a carrot that could make such an approach more palatable. How about lowering the requirement to approve a bond (required for school construction and other local projects) to the same threshold? That would likely bring the education community on board and could improve the chances of bipartisan support.
Thoughtful, considered steps are the best path forward.