In the past three months, the Legislature has moved to grab power for itself, and done so despite the express will of Idaho voters.
Exhibit A is Proposition 2, the Medicaid expansion measure and voter initiative. For years, the Legislature refused to expand Medicaid, so Idahoans, on their own, gathered signatures across the state to put the measure on the ballot. More than 60 percent of voters approved expanding Medicaid, thus providing health-care coverage to a group of Idahoans who cannot afford medical care on their own.
The new law was immediately challenged in court. Even though procedural flaws should have prevented a ruling on the case, the Idaho Supreme Court bent over backward to address the legal validity of the new law. In a thorough, 26-page opinion, the justices upheld Medicaid expansion and rejected claims that it somehow usurped the Legislature’s power.
Rather than abide by the will of Idaho voters and by the Supreme Court ruling, the Legislature now seeks to dismantle Medicaid expansion. A recent bill that grabbed national headlines: (1) requires enrollees to work 120 hours a month to maintain benefits, (2) demands that enrollees provide information regarding past drug use, and (3) attempts to privatize some insurance coverage available to enrollees. The bill would cost $1.6 million a year to administer and would strip coverage from more than 10,000 Idahoans. By so doing, the Legislature substitutes its will for that of the people.
Legislative willingness to circumvent voters, unfortunately, is not limited to Medicaid expansion. It is also demonstrated by the Legislature’s effort to kill voter initiatives. Currently, a voter initiative requires signatures from 6 percent of registered voters across more than half the state’s legislative districts to get on the ballot. That must be completed within 18 months. Voter initiatives provide a check on legislative power and allow Idahoans to act when politicians won’t.
But the Senate State Affairs Committee introduced a bill that guts voter initiatives. The new bill requires signatures from 10 percent of voters from 32 of Idaho’s 35 districts—all within 180 days. That would effectively end the voter initiative process, removing an important check on legislative power.
Some may ask, “So what?” When 80 percent of Idaho’s Legislature is Republican, what’s the harm in giving the Legislature more power, especially when legislators can be voted out of office? First, voter initiatives are critical for those instances when the Legislature won’t act despite the popular will. Second, through redistricting, legislators can protect themselves from being voted out of office.
That precise threat was posed by the House State Affairs Committee in a bill that would bring gerrymandering back to Idaho. Gerrymandering allows legislators to draw their own voting districts, a process that ensures that those in power remain so. It is a nationwide problem that erodes democracy and one Idahoans banished decades ago. In 1994, through another voter initiative, Idahoans required that an independent commission rather than the Legislature draw voting districts. The proposed bill, however, undermines the independence and bipartisan process created and codified by Idaho voters in 1994.
These three bills, when viewed together, reveal a disturbing aggrandizement of legislative power, over and beyond the will of the voters. They increase the disconnect that citizens feel between themselves and their representatives. By disregarding citizen initiatives, legislators signal that they know better than the people they represent.
McKay Cunningham is an associate professor of law at Concordia University School of Law in Boise, where he teaches constitutional and tort law.