BOISE — After two days of public testimony overwhelmingly opposed it, a Senate panel voted 6-3 Friday in favor of legislation to sharply increase the hurdles to qualify a voter initiative for the Idaho ballot.

The bill, SB 1110, now moves to the full Senate. At public hearings held Wednesday and Friday, 44 people from all over the state testified on the bill, nine for, 34 against, and one both for and against. On Friday alone, 23 people testified, nearly all remotely, with only three supporting the bill. Several threatened lawsuits in federal court if the bill becomes law.

“Having the Legislature pass a bill that takes our citizens’ rights away by making the process virtually impossible just does not seem right, in a state that values personal freedom,” said Brian Bledsoe of Post Falls.

Lauren Bramwell of the ACLU of Idaho said, “We urge you, members of the committee, to honor Idaho’s constitutional promise to its people and vote against legislation that will result in unnecessary litigation.”

Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, the bill’s lead sponsor, contended it would ensure rural voices are heard in the initiative process. The bill would require 6% of the signatures of qualified electors in each of all 35 legislative districts to qualify an initiative or referendum for the ballot; current law says 6% from 18 of the 35 districts, along with 6% of the total statewide.

Retired Boise State University political scientist Gary Moncrief was among those testifying against the bill on Friday.

“There is simply no evidence that rural interests are under-represented in Idaho politics,” he told the senators. “For example, the governor is from Emmett, the Secretary of State is from Midvale, the superintendent of public instruction is from Mountain Home. The speaker of the House is from Oakley. The speaker before him was from Midvale. The speaker before him was from Burley.”

Moncrief said, “There is an issue in American politics, in states in particular, with the creation of legislative supermajorities.” Idaho’s supermajority Republican Party controls 80% of the Legislature, much higher than the number of Idahoans who vote for the party in elections. In November’s general election, for example, Republican Donald Trump won 63.8% of Idaho votes.

“This is true in almost all states,” Moncrief said, with the party that has the legislative majority over-represented compared to the electorate. “Supermajority parties occasionally misunderstand or misinterpret public opinion because they’re so large that that’s all they hear,” he said, saying that’s why the powers of initiative and referendum are so important.

Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, joined the panel’s two minority Democrats, Sens. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, and Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, in opposing the bill. Voting in favor were committee Chair Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston; Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise; Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, R-Burley; Assistant Majority Leader Abby Lee, R-Fruitland; and GOP Caucus Chair Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs.

Burgoyne, speaking out against the bill, said, “We do have a constitutional right to vote on initiatives under the Idaho Constitution, so when we make administrative requirements too onerous, we are violating that constitutional right.”

Burgoyne, an attorney, said, “That would be a reasonable challenge and an arguable case.”

He also expressed concern that backers of the bill are discounting the views of his constituents simply because they live in an urban part of the state, and he said they have the same rights as anyone living anywhere in the state. Burgoyne said he hoped never to see people expressing “disdain for the people who live in my community.”

“The fact is that agrarian interests in Idaho are over-represented when we look at our population,” he said.

Harris said, “Moving from the 18 to 35 districts, it increases the involvement of the electorate. It lets people know what’s going to be on the ballot. I think that’s a good thing.”

Stennett said, “There were eight districts that did not qualify for Medicaid expansion in the signature-gathering, and therefore would not have gone to the ballot, with this rigor.” Yet, she said, almost all those areas voted in favor of the initiative in the general election. “With this bill nothing would get passed, and that would silence the vote of the people,” Stennett said.

Brett Casperson, a farmer from Lava Hot Springs, was among the three who spoke in favor of the bill on Friday. He said he thought Medicaid expansion still would have made the ballot under the bill, “because people wanted it. If it’s a good bill, a good initiative, it will pass.” He said, “If you can’t get 6% of registered voters from every legislative district, it’s probably not a good idea.”

Bill Esbensen, who testified against the bill on Wednesday, said it appears to him this is once again about heading off a medical marijuana initiative. "Idaho is a state that doesn't like big government, and yet this Legislature is trying to silence the majority," he told the senators. "Our polls show medical marijuana will pass."

Hollie Konde of Conservation Voters for Idaho said of the bill, “It does not equalize the playing field, nor elevate rural voices. … It would also give veto power to one district." She added, "There is no need to take away the rights of all citizens in order to elevate rural voices. Rural and urban all would lose."

Luke Mayville, a political scientist who co-founded Reclaim Idaho and successfully pushed for the Medicaid expansion initiative, said, “Our Constitution does not say that all political power is inherent in the executive branch and it does not say that all political power is inherent in the legislative branch. Our Constitution says, and I quote, that all political power is inherent in the people.”

“Now here in Idaho for a century the citizens have had a constitutional power to initiate laws,” Mayville said. “SB 1110 would restrict that right significantly. If Sen. Vick and others want to make such a sweeping change to our Constitution, they should be willing to propose a constitutional amendment,” and submit it to the voters.

To become law, SB 1110 still would need to pass the full Senate and House and receive the governor’s signature. In 2019, even more restrictive anti-initiative legislation passed both houses, but was vetoed by Gov. Brad Little.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.