BOISE — Efforts to restrict Idaho’s citizen initiative process attracted statewide interest Wednesday, with more than 100 people signing up to testify remotely before the Senate State Affairs Committee.

That’s easily the largest public turnout for any bill so far this legislative session. It echoed the response two years ago, when hundreds showed up to oppose a similar effort.

“This is a battle Idahoans have fought before, and don’t wish to fight again,” said Hollie Conde, representing the Conservation Voters of Idaho, during an hourlong hearing on the legislation.

The committee only had time to take testimony from about 25 people, so the hearing will continue Friday. Only those who already signed up will have an opportunity to testify then.

Co-sponsored by Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, Senate Bill 1110 requires initiative backers to collect signatures from 6 percent of registered voters in all 35 legislative districts around the state. The current standard is 6 percent in 18 districts, and 6 percent of voters statewide.

While the legislation doubles the number of districts, Vick noted it doesn’t change the total number signatures needed for an initiative to qualify for the ballot.

He acknowledged that gathering signatures in sprawling rural districts will be more difficult. However, given the rate of growth in Idaho’s most populous counties, he felt that’s a reasonable trade-off for insuring that rural residents have a say in what initiatives make it onto the ballot.

“Currently, in four counties you can get 18 districts,” Vick said. “So we’ve excluded a lot of people. I don’t think that was the intent when the Legislature (set the standard at 18 districts). I think the idea was to gather signatures in a significant portion of the state.”

Several rural farmers testified in support of the bill, for that same reason.

“I’m from eastern Bonneville County,” said Steve Steele. “The way the current initiative process works, it leaves me completely out. I have no representation. I think SB 1110 is an improvement.”

Bryan Searle, president of the Idaho Farm Bureau, noted that Colorado voters narrowly approved a ballot initiative last year requiring the reintroduction of wolves in the state.

“This affects livelihoods,” he said. SB 1110 “doesn’t require more signatures. It just makes it so every citizen is important and recognized, in every area (in the state).”

Opponents, however, said the legislation undermines public participation in the legislative process and essentially gives one legislative district veto power over any proposed ballot initiative.

“Idaho’s existing initiative process is already so difficult, only two initiatives have qualified in the past 18 years (when the 18-district standard was enacted),” said Sam Sandmire. “The Idaho Constitution guarantees citizens the right to make laws by ballot initiative. This bill is just another attempt to make it impossible for ordinary citizens to ever get an issue on the ballot.”

Sandmire was involved with the successful 2018 Medicaid expansion ballot initiative. Four months after voters approved that measure, Republican lawmakers placed new restrictions on the initiative process, despite widespread public opposition. The bill was subsequently vetoed, because of legal concerns.

Donald Williamson said proposals like this “remove the citizens’ right to participate in government and effectively silence the voice of the people by making ballot initiatives nearly impossible.”

“No elected official who relies on the vote of citizens to obtain their office should ever be in support of legislation that restricts or silences the voice of the very citizens they’re elected to represent,” he said.

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

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