On July 7, 1938, three avid Idaho outdoorsmen — R.G. Cole, Homer Martin and Dan McGrath — walked into the Idaho Secretary of State’s office in Boise. They were packing petitions containing the signatures of more than 24,000 Idahoans who were fed up with inaction from the Legislature.
The three hook and bullet enthusiasts used a statewide grassroots organization and old-fashioned shoe leather to accomplish what the Legislature had repeatedly failed to deliver — professional management of Idaho’s wildlife resources.
When their initiative went before the voters in November 1938, it passed with 76 percent of the vote. That’s how Idaho got its independent Fish and Game Commission 81 years ago.
The volunteers who cared about hunting and fishing would not have had to force the issue and voters would not have had to call the Legislature’s bluff, of course, if lawmakers had been listening. But they weren’t listening. The state Senate twice voted down proposals to create a fish and game department in the 1930s. And as far back as 1915, the otherwise commendable Gov. Moses Alexander vetoed a proposal to remove wildlife management from partisan politics. Ultimately the voters got a belly full and took action just as the Idaho Constitution envisioned.
Voters did the same thing in the 1950s when they limited dredge mining of the state’s rivers and in 1970s when they created the state’s Sunshine Law, mandating disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures. Voters bypassed the Legislature in 1978 and passed a property tax limitation. They did so again in 1982 when they created the homeowner’s tax exemption.
In every case citizen action came after the Legislature diddled.
Now comes the self-righteous Republican legislative supermajority to try — again – to make it virtually impossible for their constituents to put an issue on the ballot. The number of signatures required to make the ballot could increase by more than half and the time to collect those signatures could shrink from 18 months to six. Republican Sen. C. Scott Grow’s bill would also require a significant number of voters to sign petitions in 32 of the state’s 35 legislative districts.
Hearings resume today on Grow’s abomination, a piece of legislation that can only properly be called an effort to create such sweeping impediments to citizen initiatives and referendums as to destroy what the Idaho Constitution promises. Here’s betting that the fix is in and GOP legislators will again blithely disenfranchise voters.
State Sen. Patti Ann Lodge of Huston, the Republican chairwoman of the State Affairs Committee, likely tipped her hand regarding the fate of Grow’s proposal when she cut off a hearing last week after just 45 minutes of testimony, while dozens of Idahoans opposed to the measure sat waiting to voice their disapproval.
Lodge defended her action by saying, “Everyone else who signed up is against the bill.”
Now, that’s democracy in action in Idaho.
It’s also telling that the only supportive testimony before Lodge’s committee came from the Idaho Farm Bureau, an outfit that exists primarily to put a rock on the NO button of Idaho politics, and the ill-named Idaho Freedom Foundation, a hard right-wing collection of anti-government zealots who sued unsuccessfully to stop the recent voter-approved expansion of Medicaid coverage for uninsured Idahoans.
In the “irony is dead” department was the testimony of the Freedom Foundation’s lobbyist, who said draconian changes to the initiative process were necessary to ensure “transparency,” an interesting line of argument from an outfit that steadfastly refuses to disclose which right-wing billionaire bankrolls its propaganda.
As Mark Twain famously quipped: “History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme,” and Michael Lanza, the Boise outdoor writer and photographer who led the successful fight to overturn the notorious “Luna Laws,” has seen it all before.
After then-Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna rammed controversial “education reform” measures through the Legislature in 2012 and Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter eagerly signed them into law, Lanza and a coalition of parents, educators and business leaders got organized. They collected the signatures needed to put three measures to overturn Luna’s handiwork on the ballot. Each passed overwhelmingly, with one clearing 66.7 percent of the vote.
The effort was a huge victory for parents, teachers and public school students and a sharp rebuke of GOP lawmakers and Otter. As Lanza pointed out when I talked to him this week, the effort also had the desirable side benefit of “destroying Luna’s political career.”
The GOP Legislature, of course, immediately moved to make such effective and decisive citizen action much more difficult by upping the requirement to gain ballot access. Now they are at it again proposing even more drastic action.
“The state Legislature has demonstrated utter disdain for local control and citizen involvement,” Lanza told me. And, he says, the latest effort to destroy citizen involvement “is a direct response to the fact that voters decided to expand Medicaid” in the last election. “In a one-party system, especially with a supermajority, they feel no accountability to voters. They function like a Politburo or a mob family.”
In such an environment, Lanza correctly says, having the option for a citizen-initiated process to ensure accountability couldn’t be more important.
You don’t have to hang around the halls of the Idaho Legislature very long — 15 minutes should do it — before you hear some safely insulated right-wing Republican lawmaker voice the old trope that “the best government is that closest to the people.” That is one of the great myths of Idaho politics. Majority party lawmakers utterly abhor citizen involvement in their government.
They limit hearings all the time. They refuse to enact meaningful ethics legislation. They routinely strip local governments of basic decision-making authority. And barring a genuine citizen revolt or a veto from Gov. Brad Little, they will almost certainly gut the ability of Idaho citizens to put an issue on the ballot.
Republicans have now fully embraced autocracy in the White House, but they have long enjoyed pushing around their voters in the Statehouse. Stripping constituents of access to the ballot is nothing less than the ultimate insult to democracy.