BOISE -- Lawmakers are once again considering changes to Idaho’s voter initiative process, though not the ones attempted last year. Rather than upping the number of signatures or districts needed to qualify an initiative for the ballot, House Bill 548 and Senate Bill 1350—each approved by their respective chamber earlier this month—make adjustments to how those signatures are gathered and how initiatives are prepared and presented to voters.
HB 548 would narrow the scope of voter initiatives to a single subject, and classify paid signature gathering as campaign finance information that must be reported to the Secretary of State. It would also require petition signature sheets to notify voters of the existing process to remove their signature later. The bill from Rep. Jim Addis, R-Coeur d’Alene, passed the House Feb. 28.
“This is meant solely for transparency, solely for integrity of the process,” Addis told the House State Affairs Committee.
An effective date for initiatives would also be established under the bill. Laws passed by the legislature go into effect at the start of the fiscal year—the first of July—which would become the earliest effective date for an initiative, as well. The proposal does allow more flexibility in the timing of city and county initiatives, which the committee had previously expressed concerns over.
Addis said he spent about a year working on the bill with assistance from the Attorney General’s Office. No one at the hearing came to testify, and Democrats asked only a few questions before the bill was sent to the floor with a do-pass recommendation. It doesn’t include any requirements for fiscal information or funding sources, which are being addressed in the senate bill.
“There was a desire to make it a separate item, so we’ve agreed to work separately together,” Addis told the panel. “These are what I am passionate about for the proposed statute change, and [Rep. Horman] was passionate about the fiscal note and the funding source.”
Sponsors Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, and Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, presented SB 1350 to the Senate State Affairs Committee. The full senate passed the bill on a party line vote Feb. 27.
The bill would require a hypothetical funding source to be included in initiative proposals to the Secretary of State. It then directs the Division of Financial Management—the governor’s budget agency—to prepare a fiscal impact analysis for the measure and a 100-word summary. This funding proposal and fiscal statement would be included with physical petitions while gathering signatures, published in the Secretary of State’s voter information pamphlet, and printed on official election ballots.
“The process continues just as it does now,” Horman said, “but with better information for citizens to decide to sign or not sign.”
Horman said that the Division of Financial Management already does this type of analysis for qualified initiatives, and that it made sense for them to capitalize on that work already being done. However, the bill specifies that the funding mechanism is not binding nor a formal part of the initiative, which drew questions from Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum.
“Going through all of this process to not formally be part of the initiative, and ‘shall have no binding effect,’” Stennett said. “It sounds like a large obstacle for an initiative gathering process, for in the end…it’s going to be the legislature and JFAC who determines [funding]. Could you explain why the disconnect?”
Horman—a vice-chair of the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee—named the group Reclaim Idaho as an example of an initiative sponsor who have voluntarily proposed funding for their initiative. However, she said, the legislature needs flexibility to ensure that an initiative would not have adverse effects on the state’s complex budgeting and finances.
“Medicaid Expansion is a prime example of that,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. “We ended up going to several different funding sources in order to fund that and it took the process of a year.”
Both bills must now make it through the opposite end of the rotunda to reach the governor’s desk and become law. Neither would affect the initiative petitions currently in circulation for the November ballot.
“Because Reclaim Idaho is a grass-roots, volunteer-driven organization, the paid signature-gatherer aspects of the legislation will not affect our efforts now or in the future,” communications director Jeremy Gugino said in a statement. “Time and time again state legislators provide incomplete or inaccurate fiscal notes to legislation that eventually becomes law. [SB 1350] puts a higher burden on Idaho citizens to pass legislation than what is expected of state lawmakers.”