The Idaho Legislature’s target date for adjourning came and went on Monday, and the Capitol was still abuzz with key committee hearings on controversial bills on Tuesday.
In January, the Legislature set March 25 as its target for “sine die,” or adjourning the session and heading home for the year. Because of a late flurry of activity on bills adding work requirements to Medicaid expansion and toughening the requirements to qualify citizen ballot initiatives, lawmakers are extending their work in the session.
On Tuesday, the House State Affairs Committee passed the initiative bill, SB 1159, which passed the Senate by an 18-17 vote Friday. Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, voted against it Friday.
After taking testimony on the legislation Tuesday morning, the committee voted 10-5 to pass the bill on to the House floor.
The majority of speakers at the hearing opposed the legislation, although some did speak in favor of the proposal.
Sen. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, is sponsoring the bill and said Friday that it’s necessary to protect rural voters from the outsized political influence that urban centers can exert.
If passed by the House and signed by Gov. Brad Little, the bill would dramatically toughen the requirements to qualify ballot initiatives. The current standard means ballot-measure campaigns must acquire the signatures from 6 percent of registered voters in 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts, and have 18 months to accomplish that.
Under SB 1159, the standard would go to 10 percent of registered voters in 32 of Idaho’s 35 districts in about six months.
“We’re trying to ensure that it’s not just a small group of folks who can get this on the ballot,” Grow told fellow senators on Friday.
In the House State Affairs Committee on Tuesday, retired Idaho Supreme Court chief justice Jim Jones pushed back against the idea that the initiative and referendum systems are skewed against rural voters. Rather, he said that the systems were created in the first part of the 20th century expressly to protect rural voters from powerful, moneyed interests in urban centers.
Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, also testified against the legislation.
“It decreases the amount of trust in this body,” Giddings told the committee.
Eagle resident Victor Miller told the committee that he supports the bill, because the process is too easy currently.
“Initiative and referendum process is too lax,” Miller said.
Sandpoint resident Alicia Abbott said it would erode citizens’ constitutional rights.
“I fear my constitutional rights are being taken away,” Abbott said. “Respect our constitutional rights as Idahoans.”
In an interview Sunday, Stennett said she was disheartened that the bill passed the Senate by one vote, after a strong public outcry opposing it during committee hearings.
“I didn’t get one single voter who thought this would be a good idea,” Stennett said.
If it passes the House, she said Gov. Brad Little may veto the bill, but if he signs it, the legislation would likely be challenged in court as unconstitutional. A court challenge would cost the state taxpayer dollars to defend, she said.
“When you ratchet it down so tightly that you make it impossible for the voters to even have an initiative process, you step over the bounds on the constitution,” Stennett said. “The people have a say. We try and quiet and silence them. It seems like it was a backlash against the electorate. The Legislature does not honor the people.”
She said work remains on dueling Medicaid proposals in the House and the Senate this week. Last week, the House passed a bill to add a requirement that adults on Medicaid in Idaho work, train or volunteer at least 20 hours a week.
It is sponsored by Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa. Rep. Muffy Davis, D-Ketchum, and Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, voted in opposition to the bill.
The Senate has passed its own bill, which would add a voluntary work training option for recipients of Medicaid expansion.
Last November, Idaho voters passed Proposition 2, which would expand Medicaid to thousands of new recipients statewide. The expansion requires funding from the state government, which was been included in the state budget.
Stennett said she wasn’t sure how the differences between the proposals in the House and the Senate will be reconciled. At the start of the session, Little said he would not permit lawmakers to adjourn without resolving Medicaid.
“At some point, the governor will probably insert himself into it,” Stennett said. “That is likely to be the going-home bill.”
She said she was hoping for success on a bill she sponsored to address exploding targets on state lands. She said she created the bill after the Sharps Fire outside of Bellevue and Hailey last summer burned approximately 65,000 acres and cost almost $10 million. The fire’s cause was attributed to an exploding target on state land, Stennett said.
Her bill would make state lands comparable to federal lands by banning exploding targets from May to October each year, and amend the penalties to include a community-service option for restoring some of the burnt lands.
She said she wasn’t sure if it would pass muster on the House floor.
“When you’re trying to hold someone accountable, the laws don’t match,” Stennett said of a disparity on federal and state lands. “I was only trying to get state lands comparable to anything else. I’m not sure I’m going to get it off the floor of the House.”
She said the Legislature has suffered from a breakdown in its process and decorum this year, where committee chairs have added some of the most controversial bills to agendas late, without adequate notice or time to prepare for the hearings. At other times, public testimony has been deliberately cut off. New bills on major subjects, such as using general fund dollars for transportation, have been printed extremely late in the session.
“We are not following our own rules,” Stennett said. “Really divisive bills that require a lot of research and input, they’ve been throwing them in at the end of long agendas. That’s not how you do business.”