- Associated Press - Friday, April 5, 2019

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho Gov. Brad Little has issued his first veto, rejecting legislation that would have dramatically toughened the requirements to get an initiative or referendum on the ballot.

The Republican governor also plans to veto a second bill amending the first to ease the requirements, he said in a Thursday letter to Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, the Senate president.

“I question the constitutional sufficiency of the bills and the unintended consequences of their passage,” he wrote.

Little said the result would be a federal judge defining Idaho’s initiative process, and he can’t let that happen.

McGeachin, also a Republican, said she found it troubling “we find ourselves in this place where we are concerned about how the courts may or may not interpret the policies that we intend to place in our state.”

The first piece of legislation, after heated public testimony in hearings, cleared both the House and Senate last month. That bill required signatures from 10% of registered voters in 32 of 35 districts in six months. It also required a fiscal note and possible funding source for the proposed law.

The second bill required signatures from 24 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts in nine months. It also required 10% of registered voters and a funding source.

Current rules require signatures from 6% of voters in 18 districts in 18 months.

“The Legislature ignored hours and hours of testimony from people across the state and forced this thing through, and Gov. Little did the right thing for Idaho,” said Democratic House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, who voted against the bills.

The ballot initiative bills have become some of the most contentious of the legislation this session. They are seen as a reaction by lawmakers to the Medicaid expansion passed by voters in November with 61% of the vote following years of inaction by the Legislature.

Backers of the legislation said it was needed to give rural voters an equal voice due to information technology and social media that will increasingly allow initiative backers to target growing population centers where groups supporting particular issues live. Supporters say that signatures in just four highly populated areas can get an initiative on the ballot.

Idaho is growing fast, with most of that growth in urban areas, which tend to contain more Democrats than other parts of the state. Backers of making ballot initiatives tougher, particularly in the Republican-dominated Legislature, say it’s reasonable to make sure more signatures must be collected from rural areas so that initiatives that make the ballot are something voters across the state truly want.

But opponents of both the original and trailer bill said it would make ballot initiatives nearly impossible, and eliminated a way for voters to take direct action.

Democratic Sen. Grant Burgoyne voted against both bills. He said Little made the right decision because the ballot initiatives can keep lawmakers in check.

Initiatives are “the wakeup call that you have to get every once in a while from the people,” he said, and for Little “to vindicate that is a good thing.”

Republican Rep. Rod Furniss, who supported both bills, said he was disappointed with the vetoes.

“We spent a lot of time on it hoping to get that passed,” he said. “He certainly knows a lot more about it then I do, so I certainly respect his decision.”

Little in his letter was sympathetic to rural residents and their concerns about initiatives, saying Idaho shouldn’t become like California where voters have “adopted liberal initiative rules that result in excessive regulation and often conflicting laws.

“I look forward to working with the Idaho Legislature to more closely examine these issues moving forward,” he wrote.

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