Jim Jones

Jim Jones

During the 2019 legislative session, numerous lawmakers made the claim that the initiative and referendum had to be severely restricted in order to protect rural Idahoans. This argument overlooked the fact that Idaho rural voters wrote these legislative checks and balances into the Idaho Constitution in 1912 precisely to protect farmers from powerful special interests.

The initiative and referendum were designed to get around state legislatures that were bought and paid for by railroads, oil companies, and other powerful monopolies that were victimizing farmers. The farmers were not able to overcome the legions of lobbyists that the big money interests deployed in those legislatures, but the initiative and referendum gave them an avenue of relief.

When a legislature was in the pocket of a powerful interest, the people could put a measure on the ballot to make a law that protected them or to repeal a law that oppressed them. When lobbyists repeatedly sandbagged legislation that had wide public support, the voters could take the law into their own hands at the ballot box.

While Idaho did not suffer the same monopolistic oppression that hurt mid-west farmers in the early 1900s, the initiative has proven beneficial to people across the state when the Idaho Legislature has been non-responsive. Because of the initiative, we will receive many millions of federal dollars to help low-income people, urban and rural, get medical care and stay healthy. Those dollars will keep a number of rural Idaho hospitals from having to close.

The initiative has been sparingly used in Idaho, being reserved for important issues where the Legislature fails to act or acts improperly. Rural and urban voters rose up to strike the unpopular Luna education laws in 2012. They set up the Idaho Fish and Game Commission in 1938; stopped unregulated dredge mining in 1954; repealed a legislative pay raise in 1970; enacted the Sunshine Law in 1974 to bring light into the political process; and enacted the homeowner property tax exemption in 1982.

The legislators who claim that the initiative is harmful to the interests of rural voters can point to no measure approved by the people during Idaho’s statehood that has caused damage to rural interests. The argument is hollow because the initiative only allows a legislative measure to be placed on the ballot for a vote of the people.

The petition signers do not create laws. Once a measure qualifies for the ballot, all Idahoans, rural and urban, vote it up or down. What is to fear from that? If the Legislature disagrees with an approved initiative, it can amend or repeal it.

The legislation Gov. Brad Little vetoed earlier this year called for an initiative petition to have signatures from 10 percent of registered voters in each of 32 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts in order to be placed on the ballot.

It was justified as a means of allowing rural voters to participate in the legislative process. It was clearly an attempt to frustrate the power of voters, rural and urban, to exercise their constitutional legislative power.

The Idaho Constitution clearly states: “All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for their equal protection and benefit, and they may have the right to alter, reform or abolish the same whenever they may deem it necessary.”

This important constitutional provision raises two questions regarding the legislation that was designed to kneecap the power of the people to initiate legislation. First, how can the people exercise their inherent power to initiate legislation or change the government if the Legislature strangles the initiative? Second, doesn’t the equal benefit language in the Constitution guarantee every voter the right to have his or her signature counted equally for purposes of qualifying an initiative for the ballot, regardless of whether they reside in town or in the country?

Reclaim Idaho, which was able through hard work and the help of many Idahoans to get the Medicaid expansion initiative on the 2018 ballot, will hold a town hall in Idaho Falls on Tuesday to address these and other questions. The town hall is set for 6 p.m. at the Senior Citizens Center, 535 W. 21st in Idaho Falls. The public is invited and encouraged to attend and participate.

Jim Jones served as an Army artillery officer in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969 and received an Army Commendation Medal for his work with an orphanage there. He served for eight years as Idaho Attorney General and was a justice on the Idaho Supreme Court for 12 years. He currently resides in Boise.