BOISE — An effort to “silence the voice of the people” by further restricting Idaho’s ballot initiative process advanced to the Senate floor with a favorable recommendation Friday.

The Senate State Affairs Committee approved Senate Bill 1110 on a split voice vote.

The legislation requires initiative backers to gather signatures from 6 percent of registered voters in all 35 legislative districts for the measure to qualify for the ballot. The current requirement is 6 percent in 18 districts, and 6 percent of the statewide voter total.

A total of 44 people testified during Friday’s 90-minute public hearing and an hourlong hearing Wednesday. Almost all urged lawmakers to oppose the measure, saying it makes the process of adopting laws through citizen initiatives so onerous as to be effectively impossible.

“For over a century, Idahoans have had a constitutional right to initiate laws. But SB 1110 would restrict that right dramatically. Of the 26 states with citizen initiatives, none require signatures from all legislative districts,” said Luke Mayville, co-founder of Reclaim Idaho.

Reclaim Idaho sponsored the 2018 Medicaid expansion initiative. That was one of 10 citizen initiatives to qualify for the ballot in the past 25 years, and the first to be approved since 2002.

“We’ve heard a lot from legislators this session about the need to shift power away from the executive branch and give more power to the legislative branch,” Mayville said. “But somehow, the very same legislators who are so anxious to protect their own power aren’t willing to protect the constitutional powers of the people.”

He noted that the Idaho Constitution doesn’t say political power is inherent in the executive or legislative branches. Instead, Article I, Section 2 says “all political power is inherent in the people.”

If lawmakers want to restrict that constitutional right, Mayville said, they should propose a constitutional amendment and submit it to voters for approval.

“If we’re going to discuss such significant changes to the Constitution, that discussion shouldn’t be limited to two early morning committee hearings,” he said. “It should be taking places at community gatherings and town hall events in every community across the state. ... I would urge you to show some respect for the citizens of this state and reject this proposal.”

Randall French, of Boise, noted that the legislation gives a single district veto power over an initiative that may otherwise have statewide support.

“That’s simply inappropriate,” he said. “This takes away the opportunity Idaho citizens have to meaningfully petition their government for redress.”

Committee members received a packet of letters and emails supporting the legislation, but only three people testified in favor Friday.

Mary Schwartz, of Cambridge, for example, said SB 1110 helps ensure that the residents of Idaho’s four most populous counties don’t overwhelm the voices of rural residents.

“The current process discriminates against me and everyone else who doesn’t live in those four counties,” she said. “We need to consider a fair distribution of opinions, rather than allowing the larger population centers to dictate issues for rural residents.”

Russ Hendricks, director of governmental affairs for the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, said SB 1110 doesn’t increase the number of signatures needed to qualify an initiative for the ballot.

“It simply ensures that the same total number of signatures is spread out across the entire state,” he said. “Our members believe if an issue is so important and so compelling that it must go before the people, then all areas of the state should have a say in getting it there.”

The committee agreed to send the bill to the Senate floor with a favorable recommendation on a 6-3 voice vote. Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, joined the committee’s two Democratic members in opposing the legislation; the other Republicans supported it, including the entire Senate Republican leadership team.

William L. Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.

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