IDAHO FALLS — East Idaho lawmakers and a former state Supreme Court justice met Tuesday to debate the Legislature’s attempts this year to raise the threshold to get an initiative on the ballot.

Speaking at a town hall in Idaho Falls sponsored by Reclaim Idaho, the group responsible for getting Medicaid expansion on the ballot last year, Sen. Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs, said the timing of this year’s attempt to change the initiative process may have looked bad, coming in the wake of the successful passage of Medicaid expansion. But, he said, redistricting is coming after the 2020 Census, and rural Idaho will probably lose a few seats to Ada and Canyon counties then.

“My concern is, I don’t want somebody in Juniper or Wayan to miss out on the process of the initiative,” he said. “I want everybody that is possibly able to have a part in the initiative, the signature process.”

Arguing in favor of the current process, Jim Jones, a former state Supreme Court Justice and Idaho Attorney General, said giving a greater voice to rural voters over urban ones would likely be unconstitutional. Jones said there is no real risk of rural Idahoans having their voices drowned out — Gov. Brad Little, Jones said, is a rancher from Emmett, and Senate President Pro Tempore Brent Hill and House Speaker Scott Bedke are from Rexburg and Oakley.

“So I don’t know that there’s any great danger that the rural folks are going to lose out,” said Jones, who retired from the state’s highest court in 2017. “And if you look at the initiatives that have passed, we haven’t gone hog-wild like they do in California and have an initiative on every subject every year.”

“I don’t think anybody here wants to give an advantage to the rural voters,” Harris replied. “We want equality, we want fairness and we want transparency. Nobody wants to give one side or the other an advantage.”

Reclaim Idaho spent much of the 2019 legislative session lobbying against changing the initiative procedure. While Little vetoed legislation that would have raised the threshold for an initiative, the issue is expected to come up again during the 2020 session.

Tuesday’s debate at the Senior Citizens Community Center was the fifth in Reclaim Idaho’s series of “Idaho Speaks” town halls. The first four were in Boise, Sandpoint, Coeur d’Alene and Twin Falls. The two bills the Legislature passed would have, between them, cut signature-gathering time for an initiative from 18 to 9 months and increased the signature requirement from 6 percent of voters statewide and in 18 of 35 legislative districts to 10 percent of voters statewide and in two-thirds of the state’s districts.

Harris and Sens. David Lent, R-Idaho Falls, and Jim Guthrie, R-Inkom, and Reps. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls; Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg; Jerald Raymond, R-Menan; and Randy Armstrong, R-Inkom, were on stage with Jones. Reps. Chris Abernathy, D-Pocatello and Britt Raybould, R-Rexburg, were also there in the audience. Guthrie and Abernathy were the only ones of the lawmakers there who voted against both bills.

Guthrie said he might support some minor changes, such as adding a single-subject rule or requiring a fiscal impact note, but that overall, “I believe (the initiative process) is hard enough the way it exists now. It’s very difficult to do.”

And, Guthrie said, the Legislature can amend or repeal an initiative if it wants, as it did when it repealed the term limits voters passed in the 1990s.

More than 100 people came to the town hall and, judging from the questions, the audience members were mostly supportive of the current process. About a quarter of the crowd raised their hands when Reclaim Idaho communications director Jeremy Gugino, who moderated the forum, asked if any of them had ever worked on getting an initiative on the ballot before.

Claudia Pine, who worked gathering signatures for Medicaid expansion in Bonneville County — Reclaim Idaho co-founder Luke Mayville started the meeting by giving her and fellow volunteer Todd Devries plaques recognizing their work — said technological improvements haven’t made the signature-gathering process easier. She said she spent four and a half months talking to people and trying to convince them to sign. And, she said, lawmakers never asked them what could be done to improve the process.

“We had to collect our signatures the old-fashioned way,” she said. “Technology didn’t help us do anything but track the results.”

As well as raising the signature requirements, the bills Little vetoed would have required a fiscal impact statement for initiatives. Idaho lawmakers still haven’t decided how to fund Medicaid expansion long-term, and Armstrong gave the example of Montana, where he said expansion cost much more than originally projected, as an example of why the bills were a good idea.

“Everybody says, ‘Well there’s 61 percent of the people voted for (Medicaid expansion), they were strongly in favor of it, but in my opinion, I don’t know if people really knew how expensive (what it was) they were voting for,” Armstrong said.

Last year’s Medicaid expansion initiative came after several years where the Legislature debated expansion but didn’t act.

“I think the Legislature has some responsibility,” Ricks said. “By not acting, the initiative came forth.”

Ricks said he worries about well-funded out-of-state interests being able to get an initiative on the ballot. He pointed to petitions being circulated now, to get initiatives on the 2020 ballot to raise the minimum wage and legalize medical marijuana, as examples of what worries him.

“It’s going to come in as medical marijuana, and almost every state that has brought that in, within the next few years is knocking on the door of trying to bring full recreational marijuana,” Ricks said. “I don’t think that’s a good idea to bring to Idaho personally.”

Jones said the hurdles in the initiative process need to be ones citizens can clear in cases where the Legislature doesn’t act and so people can realistically exercise that right.

“I am a supporter of the initiative,” he said. “In my work on the Supreme Court, I became a fan of the Idaho Constitution. The Idaho Constitution says all political power is inherent in the people, and they have the right to alter, reform or abolish their government whenever they deem fit.”

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.