A federal judge Tuesday brought the Reclaim Idaho education funding initiative back to life, reigniting the debate over the $170 million proposal.
U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill gave state leaders a Friday afternoon deadline and two options. The state can give Reclaim Idaho volunteers nearly seven weeks to gather online signatures from supporters, or the state can simply agree to put the initiative on the November ballot, bypassing the signature-gathering process entirely. State leaders say they will opt for neither of the above, and instead file an appeal.
Nonetheless, Winmill’s decision marks a dramatic turn of events. In March, as the coronavirus pandemic began to spread across Idaho, Reclaim Idaho had suspended its initiative efforts, putting its campaign on hold.
But Reclaim Idaho argued that Gov. Brad Little and Secretary of State Lawerence Denney had failed to provide the group another means of getting its issue on the ballot. Reclaim argued that this constituted a violation of its First Amendment rights. After listening to an hour of oral arguments Tuesday afternoon, Winmill took the unusual step of issuing his decision on the spot. “Time is of the essence.”
Little and Denney responded almost as quickly.
“This decision is a surprising exercise of judicial activism,” they said in a joint statement, issued barely an hour after Winmill’s ruling. “We plan to appeal this decision immediately.”
At issue is Reclaim Idaho’s proposal to increase corporate income tax rates and income tax rates for Idahoans making more than $250,000 per year. The increased taxes, some $170 million, would go into a separate account that the state could tap to increase teacher pay, reduce class sizes, provide all-day kindergarten, support career-technical programs and purchase textbooks and classroom supplies.
In arguing for Reclaim Idaho’s initiative, Boise attorney Deborah Ferguson alluded to the coronavirus-driven economic downturn, and Little’s plans to cut K-12 spending in light of shrinking state tax collections. “We feel the need for this initiative is more pressing now than ever.”
Tuesday’s hearing — and Reclaim Idaho’s June 8 lawsuit — focused less on the issue of education funding, and instead on the mechanics of getting a voter initiative on the ballot.
When Reclaim Idaho suspended its signature-gathering efforts in March, the group said it had collected more than 30,000 signatures from voters. State law requires initiative campaigns to collect more than 55,000 signatures, including signatures from 6 percent of voters in 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts.
Reclaim Idaho had momentum heading into an April 30 signature-gathering deadline, and its pace from 2018, when it placed its successful Medicaid expansion initiative on the ballot, Ferguson argued Tuesday. But the outbreak of coronavirus forced Reclaim Idaho to sideline its volunteers, made up largely of senior citizens, and Little and Denney offered the group no other way to continue its campaign. At that point, she said, Reclaim Idaho suspended its efforts.
Deputy Attorney General Robert Arthur Berry presented a different version of events. While conceding the coronavirus pandemic was unforeseen, he also chided Reclaim Idaho for beginning its initiative process just six months before its April 30 deadline, squandering most of the 18 months allowed under state law. And in March, as Idaho began to report its first coronavirus cases, Reclaim Idaho essentially gave up its effort, instructing Ada County elections officials to stop verifying signatures on petitions.
“They knew the deadline was coming,” Berry said. “They stopped.”
Citing Reclaim Idaho’s success on the Medicaid initiative, Winmill rejected Berry’s argument. Reclaim Idaho might have backloaded its signature gathering, Winmill said, but the group is allowed to run a political campaign as it chooses.
Winmill went out of his way to not criticize Little or Denney, saying the two state officials were trying to enforce an initiative law that sets a deadline for campaigns and requires face-to-face petitioning. But he pointed out that Little and Denney also made other adjustments in response to the pandemic, pivoting to an unprecedented vote-by-mail primary this spring.
In its lawsuit, Reclaim Idaho asked for a 48-day extension to gather signatures, and the go-ahead to collect signatures electronically. Saying he wanted to stop short of dictating election policy, Winmill offered the state the option of placing the initiative on the ballot automatically.