Joint Resolution to strengthen the initiative process faces overwhelming opposition, sent back to be ‘possibly amended’

An overwhelming number of people, both in person and online, asked the state affairs committee to not send Hayden Sen. Doug Okuniewicz’s Joint Resolution to the Senate floor.
Published: Feb. 2, 2023 at 10:57 AM MST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

BOISE, Idaho (KMVT/KSVT) —An Idaho Republican lawmaker’s attempt to strengthen the initiative process in the Gem State, was sent back to the drawing board, as his Joint Resolution failed to get a “do pass” recommendation from the Senate State Affairs Committee Wednesday morning.

An overwhelming number of people, both in person and online, asked the state affairs committee to not send Hayden Sen. Doug Okuniewicz’s Joint Resolution to the Senate floor.

His proposed legislation would put before the voters on the November 2024 General Election, a ballot question of whether or not to amend the Idaho State Constitution to require 6% of legal voters from the prior General Election in each of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts, to sign a petition for an initiative to get on the ballot, versus only 18 legislative districts as is currently allowable.

Okuniewicz told committee members the Joint Resolution will more fairly distribute voter involvement and inclusivity for initiatives and referendums by giving every legislative district in the state a voice.

His proposed Joint Resolution is similar to a law passed in 2021 that was overturned by the Idaho Supreme Court.

Okuniewicz said his Joint Resolution is different, because the Idaho Supreme Court felt the legislature was not in position to impose that change on the people, so what this does is put the question before the people. He said the Idaho Attorney General’s Office told him this approach is “perfectly fine” and “withstand any legal scrutiny.”

However, many people who testified felt the change would make it impossible for an initiative to get on the ballot, considering one district could veto the process. Many said under the current system it is already extremely tough to get an initiative on the ballot. One person pointed out that in the last ten years that many have made it to the ballot.

Fruitland Sen. Abby Lee pointed out the Joint Resolution would ask the Idaho voters, and not lawmakers, if they want to see the initiative process changed. She asked people who were opposed to the legislation what is the danger in putting that question before the voters.

Some committee members who echoed Sen. Lee said if the initiative process is fine the ballot question would reflect that with its results.

However, some who were opposed to the Joint Resolution told the committee that they felt that it was unconstitutional, and putting the question on the ballot could be dangerous.

“The ability to put an initiative on the ballot is a fundamental right in Idaho. Fundamental… You put SJR101 on the ballot and you don’t tell the people what it is, this is what happens in Idaho and all of you know it. They see yes, yes, yes. ‘I’m told to vote yes, and they don’t know what they are voting for,” said Boise Resident Terri PIckens. “They have no Idea when they go into that ballot box and been given the recommendation from their representatives to change the constitution. They think you are doing their work.”

However, according to the Joint Resolution it will “eliminate the current practice of ‘venue shopping’ by well-funded activist organizations”. It states under the current system, it is possible to acquire more than one half of the total number of signatures required to place a question on the ballot from a single legislative district.

According to the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office In addition to the 18 Districts, the total number of signatures in the districts, “shall be equal to or greater than 6% of the qualified electors of the state”

Of the roughly 40 or more people that testified Wednesday, only two people advocated in favor of the Joint Resolution and feel the current process is suppressing the voices of the minority.

One resident from Eagle said he supports SJR101 because the United States is a “republic” and not a “democracy”.

“Ada County, Canyon County, Kootenai County, and Twin Falls County, those four counties out of 44 contain 18 legislative districts. While we may not have had a rural versus urban in the past we could now,” said Eagle resident Stephen Bender.

Burley Sen. Kelly Anthon used an example of how the California Initiative process is hurting rural farmers, and putting hard regulations on ag production.

“What they have done is go into downtown San Francisco to get the signatures for the ballot… They are not going to the places that produce these animals,” said Anthon. “Then when it comes time to vote on the matter the votes that they need are back in San Francisco. Pretty soon the ag production is under distress.”

He added the matter is personal to him because his home county has more dairy cows than any county in the State of Idaho. He said their local economy is very dependent on it, and if it was over regulated for many families it could mean a lot of hardship.

He asked one person who was against the Joint Resolution to explain to him why 18 districts should have a say on what goes on the ballot and not all 35.

Idaho native Lucile Schopinich told Anthon that if he weighed in all the testimony Wednesday morning he would see in the case of the initiative process in Idaho volunteers gather signatures from both urban and rural voters.

“If you look at the reality today, the coverage is very good when Idaho voters collect signatures for a ballot initiative,” Schopinich said.

After hours of testimony Okuniewicz said he understands that people are concerned that a single district could veto an initiative, but at the same time he doesn’t think it’s right that 18 districts have the right to dictate to 17 other districts what goes on the ballot.

In the end he, like others, wants to hear from the voters to see if they think the initiative process needs to be fixed.

“I hope we don’t silence the voice of the people in this instance,”Okuniewicz said.

Afterwards Anthon made a comment to the committee that as he looked at the language of the Joint Resolution he had a couple of concerns about it. He believed in its current form it is not ready to be heard on the Senate floor.

He later made a motion to send the Joint Resolution to the 14th order of the Senate calendar to be possibly amended. Pocatello Sen. James Ruchti told the committee he wanted to hear Anthon’s thoughts on amendments before he voted on the motion, but Anthon declined to comment on the request.

His motion was approved by the committee, but Boise Sen. Melissa Wintrow voted against it.