Senate panel holds off on election bill

The Senate State Affairs Committee needs more time to vet a bill to change Idaho laws governing voter initiatives and referendums.

Senate Bill 1108 would require groups looking to place a referendum or initiative on ballots to collect signatures from at least 6 percent of registered voters in at least 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts. Idaho law requires signatures from 6 percent of registered voters, without district or geographic requirements.

Committee members discussed SB 1108 Friday morning, but adjourned for the Senate floor session without voting. The hearing is expected to continue at 8 a.m. Monday.

Although SB 1108 is not specifically an education bill, Friday’s debate regularly circled back to the 2012 Students Come First referendums and ultimate voter repeal.

Supporters said the bill is aimed at striking a balance between the interests of urban and rural residents, so that those backing an initiative could not only collect signatures in populated cities. But critics countered that the bill is motivated by a desire to make the initiative and referendum process more difficult.

All five witnesses who spoke Friday opposed SB 1108; several other speakers had signed up to testify, but the hearing was adjourned before they had the chance to speak. The only supporter was Idaho Farm Bureau regional manager Russ Hendricks, who presented the bill.

“Our members certainly had a concern … because of the increase in urbanization over time,” Hendricks said.

Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, suggested the bill was a reaction to the Students Come First repeal. He attempted to draw a parallel between this bill and a 1997 law – ultimately thrown out by the courts – that followed on the heels of three voter initiatives from the previous year.

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Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise

“Other than history repeating itself in the same exact manner as something 16 years ago, what makes today’s bill critical?” Werk said. “Where is the problem?”

“When the education laws were challenged recently, I found it exciting …because this was democracy in action,” Anne Olden of Boise said. “I haven’t read any argument that Idahoans have abuse the referenda process, so let’s keep a process that works.”

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa pointed out a bizarre parallel between this year’s election bill and Students Come First. This year’s bill and Proposition 1 from the 2011 Students Come First laws are identified as Senate Bill 1108. Ysursa added that his office is not taking a position on the election bill.

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