The Idaho Legislature and the lobbyists who direct its work have never had much use for the initiative and referendum. These people power measures were devised as a means of getting around lobbyist-controlled legislatures. Our Legislature has historically viewed the initiative as an infringement on its monopolistic control of legislation. Lobbyists want to be in a position to control the direction of all legislation and certainly don’t want the people to have any say in developing public policy. That is why there have been continual efforts by lobbyists and legislators to kill the initiative and referendum.
The Legislature tried to strangle people power in its infancy in 1911. Bowing to popular demand, the Legislature agreed that year to put a measure on the 1912 election ballot, amending the Idaho Constitution to provide an initiative and referendum for the people’s use. However, some supporters of people power smelled a rat in the way the question was presented on the ballot. It left it to the Legislature to provide a procedure for getting an initiative or referendum teed up for approval.
An article in the February 5, 1911 issue of the Idaho Statesman explained that supporters of the amendment believed that this was “a scheme to bottle up the initiative and referendum.” That is, to put the measures on the books, but never enact a procedure to get a people power measure on the ballot. The supporters concluded that “what the enemies of the initiative and referendum proposed to do in Idaho, put into the constitution a provision for the initiative and referendum and there let it rest without laws to put it into operation.”
The Legislature waited 4 years to propose a procedure and it was a doozie. It required the signatures of a minimum of 15% of the voters in each and every Idaho county. Petitions could not be circulated, but had to be signed in the office of a judge, county clerk or notary public. Then-Governor Moses Alexander vetoed the bill, saying it would be “fatal” to the initiative and referendum. Over the years since, two other Governors have vetoed other legislation making it almost impossible for the people to qualify a ballot measure–Governor Evans in 1986 and Governor Little in 2019.
In 1933, the legislature finally enacted signature requirements that were tough but workable. From 1933 to 1997 – a 64-year period – the rules required signatures of 10% of the voters in the prior gubernatorial election.
In 1997, just after the people approved a term limits initiative that the legislators didn’t much like, the Legislature struck back with tough new requirements. The federal court declared that law in violation of the U.S. Constitution in 2003.
When the voters killed the unpopular Luna Laws with referendums in 2012, the legislature retaliated in 2013 with tougher requirements. After the people expanded Medicaid through a 2018 initiative, the Legislature took revenge with an even tougher bill, which was vetoed. Not to be deterred, the Legislature responded by passing a bill this year that will make it virtually impossible for the people to qualify a ballot measure.
The Legislature has tried to justify this power grab with a variety of specious arguments that don’t hold water. The simple fact is that legislators want to keep their monopoly on power. And the lobbyists who control legislators do not wish to give up their stranglehold over the legislative process.