State pushes toward appeal in Reclaim Idaho lawsuit

(UPDATED, 8:23 a.m. June 27, with comment from Reclaim Idaho.)

Allowing Reclaim Idaho to pursue its $170 million school funding initiative would inflict “significant, irreparable injury” upon the state, the Idaho attorney general’s office argued Friday.

As expected, the state rejected the two options U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill presented to the state: allow Reclaim Idaho a spot on the November 2020 ballot, or give the group 48 days to gather signatures electronically to try to secure a spot on the ballot. “Requiring the state to implement the court’s selected remedy, whichever one it is, impinges on the state’s power to control its elections,” deputy attorney general Robert Berry wrote.

And as expected, the state again said it will appeal Winmill’s Tuesday ruling. Berry wants Winmill to put his ruling on hold while the matter goes to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The filing comes just three days after Winmill breathed new life into Reclaim Idaho’s K-12 initiative, and handed the state an abrupt court defeat.

The “Invest in Idaho” initiative would increase corporate taxes and income taxes for Idahoans making more than $250,000 a year. The proceeds, some $170 million, would go into a standalone fund for K-12. The state could use the money to increase teacher pay, reduce class sizes, provide all-day kindergarten, support career-technical programs and purchase textbooks and classroom supplies.

But first, Reclaim Idaho needs to get a spot on the ballot, and that’s the crux of the lawsuit.

Reclaim Idaho suspended its signature-gathering efforts on March 18 — days after Idaho reported its first coronavirus case, and weeks before the April 30 deadline for initiative campaigns.

Reclaim Idaho says it approached Gov. Brad Little and Secretary of State Lawerence Denney in March, asking the state to allow an alternative to face-to-face signature-gathering, but was rebuffed. In its June 8 lawsuit, Reclaim Idaho said Little and Denney violated the group’s First Amendment rights, by failing to provide another avenue to qualify for the ballot.

After a one-hour court hearing Tuesday, Winmill took the unusual step of ruling from the bench, siding with Reclaim Idaho on the First Amendment issue.

The state maintains that it did not violate Reclaim Idaho’s constitutional rights. Instead, Berry wrote, the initiative was done in by two factors: an unforeseen global pandemic, and the group’s own decision to put off signature-gathering until the end of the 18-month window allowed under the law.

And even so, he wrote, states can temporarily curtail constitutional rights amidst “a society-threatening epidemic.” For example, he said, the state of Massachusetts passed a mandatory vaccination law during a smallpox epidemic, and a court upheld it.

The state was on the clock this week. In his Tuesday ruling, Winmill gave the state a 5 p.m. Friday deadline to respond — and choose between the two alternatives he had presented.

Reclaim Idaho co-founder Luke Mayville blasted the state’s response.

“The state’s decision is a shocking refusal to obey the law,” he said Friday. “But Judge Winmill’s decision still stands, and the state’s defiance does not alter our path forward. We will be consulting with our attorneys over the weekend.”

Earlier Friday, Winmill issued a 27-page written order restating Tuesday’s ruling.

He again said Little and Denney could have made allowances to continue the initiative process — even in the midst of a global pandemic. And, he wrote, allowing Idahoans to decide on the initiative in 2020 would serve the public interest.

“Delay in the process until 2022 could result in impact to tens of thousands of public students over that time — which strikes to the heart of Reclaim Idaho’s First Amendment activity.”

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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