BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Agriculture interests and beer distributors scored a victory Wednesday in their bid to raise hurdles for initiative proponents seeking to get measures before voters.
The Senate State Affairs Committee voted 7-2 along party lines with Republicans in favor for the plan requiring signatures be gathered from 6 percent of registered voters in 18 of Idaho's 35 legislative districts to qualify an initiative for the ballot, provided those signatures also equal 6 percent of total voters statewide.
Currently, Idaho requires signatures from 6 percent of voters statewide. There is no geographic requirement, so all names could come from one part of the state, which supporters of the bill say doesn't provide an accurate representation of public opinion on a given issue.
The Idaho Farm Bureau wants these changes to help block groups from pushing animal cruelty initiatives, while the Idaho Beer and Wine Distributors Association supports them on fear that a voter initiative effort to upend Idaho's state liquor store system — as was done in neighboring Washington state's privatization push in 2011 — would place its members at a disadvantage.
Both worry an initiative drive could succeed primarily by collecting signatures mostly from populous Ada and Canyon counties, while neglecting voters in Idaho's rural hinterlands.
"We believe the ballot initiative process should involve as many voters from across the state of Idaho as possible," said Tyler Mallard, a beer and wine distributors lobbyist. The bill "ensures that all the signatures aren't collected in Ada and Canyon county."
The measure now goes to the full Senate.
Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, agreed signature gatherers should be required to fan out across Idaho, not just concentrate on urban areas where it may be easier and quicker to round up registered voters. He said he was convinced backers' motives were establishing good public policy.
"They want the public to participate — statewide," Davis said.
Democratic Sen. Elliot Werk from Boise, predicted expensive voting-rights lawsuits will accompany the measure, which he believes is an effort to marginalize the voices of people who live in cities.
Werk also said the bill would rob true grassroots groups from all regions of Idaho any chance of qualifying their initiatives for the ballot. If the Farm Bureau bill becomes law, he contends, only deep-pocketed, well-organized groups would be able to mobilize a signature gathering force capable of meeting the new requirements.
"By raising the bar, we're telling grassroots people — people from our communities, regardless of where they come from — that this process will be out of reach for them," Werk said.
Back in 1997, a similar law — requiring 6 percent of registered voters in at least 22 counties— was overturned by a federal judge.
Sixteen years later, the Farm Bureau said it was motivated to take another crack, only this time focusing on legislative districts, out of fear that something must be done to avert initiatives such as have been passed by California voters adding requirements for farms on how they treat animals.
"Perhaps there's not been an abuse of the system so far" in Idaho, Farm Bureau lobbyist Russ Hendricks said at Wednesday's hearing. "But our members are familiar with the old adage, 'It's always important to close the barn door before the horse gets out, rather than afterwards.'"
Bert Marley, a lobbyist for the Idaho Education Association that helped defeat Idaho's hotly disputed education overhaul last year, countered many of his members are suspicious that lawmakers have another motivation for favoring these new hurdles to putting initiatives to a vote: As a means of "retribution" against the union for its success on Nov. 6 at the polls.
"Basically, I believe it would crush the voice of the people," Marley said.