LEWISTON — Idaho Gov. Brad Little's position on restricting the citizen initiative process hasn’t changed since he vetoed two legislative proposals earlier this year.

Little, who was in Lewiston for several meetings Monday, said he’s willing to consider updates to Idaho’s ballot initiative requirements. However, he doesn’t see a need to make the process substantially more difficult than it is today.

“There’s reasons to keep the hurdle at the same level,” he said during a meeting with Lewiston Tribune editors.

Republican plans to restrict the initiative process turned into one of the most controversial efforts of the 2019 legislative session. They said restrictions are needed to ensure that rural voters continued to have a say in which initiatives qualify for the ballot. Opponents, though, saw the move as retaliation for last year’s Medicaid expansion initiative, which was approved by more than 60 percent of voters.

After multiple hearings and debates, lawmakers agreed to increase the number of signatures needed to qualify an initiative or referendum for the ballot from 6 percent of registered voters to 10 percent. They also reduced the time limit for gathering signatures from 18 months to 270 days, and required the 10 percent threshold to be met in 24 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts, up from 18 previously.

Little vetoed the bills, saying the restrictions went too far. He worried the legislation would prompt a lawsuit and ultimately allow a federal judge to decide what Idaho’s initiative requirements should be.

“It was like everybody said, ‘Here’s my favorite thing,’ and they added them all up,” he said. “The collective power of it was such that it just made (the process) really difficult.”

It would not be unusual, however, for lawmakers to bring back a similar proposal for consideration during the 2020 legislative session.

Little said he’s heard such speculation, but so far, no one has approached him.

“My position hasn’t changed,” he said.

Little addressed a number of other issues during his meeting at the Tribune, including:

TRANSPORTATION FUNDING

While serving as lieutenant governor, Little led a task force that reviewed Idaho’s state and local transportation funding needs.

In 2010, the group reported that there was a $262 million annual shortfall in funding for highway and bridge maintenance and repairs, plus an additional $281 million annual shortfall in funding for capacity improvements.

A portion of the combined shortfall has since been addressed through additional bonding capacity, increased fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees and through appropriations of state general fund revenues. However, there remains a substantial deficit.

Little has indicated he would like to provide more money for transportation infrastructure, but he hasn’t identified a funding source. He noted that the Idaho Associated General Contractors and Association of Idaho Cities, together with Boise State University, are currently updating the 2010 study. Once that’s done, he’ll start looking at potential solutions.

“I don’t think there will be any big, bold tax increases proposed before the (2020) primary, but that doesn’t mean we can’t queue something up for the following year,” Little said Monday.

BEHAVIORAL HEALTH

Idaho has taken a variety of steps in recent years to address mental health and substance abuse treatment needs, including funding for short-term crisis centers and start-up funding for community recovery centers.

More funding for treatment will be available once Medicaid expansion is implemented Jan. 1, Little said. After that, the state can review where the remaining gaps are in the behavioral health system before deciding if additional funding is needed

One possibility, he said, might be to use the state-local catastrophic health system to address any remaining needs.

The catastrophic health or indigent system covers medical costs for people who otherwise can’t afford treatment. Counties pay the first $11,000 for their citizens, with the state picking up the remainder; the county costs are covered through a local property tax levy.

Lawmakers are currently reviewing whether to grab some or all of the indigent system funding to pay for Medicaid expansion. Little, however, wondered if a portion of the funding should stay in place to pay for community-based recovery.

“I’m just spit-balling here,” he clarified.

BUDGET MATTERS

The state recently revised its 2020 revenue estimate downward by $96 million or 2.4 percent. Combined with a $20 million shortfall in the beginning balance and other miscellaneous changes, the fiscal 2020 ending balance is now estimated at $51.1 million — a 70 percent, or $122.7 million, decrease from what lawmakers expected just a few months ago.

The downgrade will make it more difficult for the governor or Legislature to pursue tax cuts or new programs — unless they change the way the state budgets.

Historically, the state has relied on baseline budgeting, meaning new programs that get approved one year become part of the ongoing base in future years. The process provides some stability, but it also makes it difficult to prioritize and eliminate programs.

An alternative approach — one that wouldn’t grow the overall budget — would be to require agencies to pay for any new programs by eliminating existing programs that have a lower priority.

Little said some of that might take place, beginning with his fiscal 2021 budget recommendation.

“The base isn’t sacrosanct to me,” he said. While education will remain his top priority, “to get some other, incremental things, maybe we will need to tinker with the base. I think you’ll see us do that when we start going through (the 2021 agency budget requests) line by line.”


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

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