Idaho: Throw out education funding ballot initiative lawsuit

June 19, 2020 GMT

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A lawsuit seeking more time to collect signatures for an education funding ballot initiative and to allow electronic signature gathering for the effort should be thrown out, state officials say.

The Idaho attorney general’s office in a filing Thursday in U.S. District Court said the Reclaim Idaho group’s own decisions and delays in taking action caused it to miss the May 1 deadline to gather the signatures needed for the initiative to appear on the November ballot.

The initiative seeks to raise $170 million for K-12 education by raising Idaho’s corporate tax rate and increasing taxes on individuals making $250,000 a year or higher.

The state also argued that Reclaim Idaho is asking the court with its electronic-signature request to “invade the Idaho Legislature’s constitutionally-created authority and create a signature-gathering alternative that is nowhere contemplated by the Idaho Constitution or Code and that has never even been introduced for legislative consideration.”

Reclaim Idaho filed the lawsuit June 6 against Republican Gov. Brad Little and Republican Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, contending emergency orders issued by Little during the coronavirus pandemic unconstitutionally limited the group’s ability to collect signatures.

Little issued an emergency declaration on March 13 after the virus was confirmed in the state and then on March 25 a stay-at-home order as the virus appeared to be spreading out of control. The order was later extended to April 30 — the last day allowed for collecting ballot initiative signatures.

The stay-at-home order barred activities considered “non-essential,” like gathering signatures.

Reclaim Idaho in the lawsuit said the governor’s statewide stay-at-home order didn’t include any exceptions for the First Amendment-protected process of signature gathering, a form of political speech.

Reclaim Idaho is asking a federal judge to grant a temporary 48-day extension to collect signatures and to allow group members to collect the signatures electronically for the initiative.

Reclaim Idaho announced shortly before the March 25 stay-at-home order that it was suspending signature gathering operations as the coronavirus took hold in Idaho. Gathering signatures requires face-to-face contact and the group said that contact presented serious health risks to its volunteers and potential petition signers.

The group at the time said it had already gathered more than half of the roughly 55,000 signatures needed ahead of the April 30 deadline and was close to meeting other requirements on how many signatures needed to be collected from different legislative districts.

The Idaho attorney general’s office in its court filing said that Reclaim Idaho voluntarily quit gathering signatures on March 18 — a week before the stay-at-home order was imposed. State officials also said Reclaim Idaho chose to gather signatures over six months rather than the 18 months allowed under Idaho law.

Reclaim Idaho said the changes requested in the lawsuit, including electronic signature gathering, wouldn’t alter state law but would be a one-time fix for the unique situation presented by the pandemic.

A hearing on the case is scheduled for next Tuesday.

The ballot initiative process in Idaho has been among the most contentious issues in the state in recent years, especially after voters used the initiative process in 2018 to pass Medicaid expansion with 61% of the vote after years of inaction by state lawmakers. Reclaim Idaho also spearheaded that ballot initiative.

Lawmakers in the overwhelmingly Republican House and Senate responded in 2019 by passing legislation making the initiative process significantly more difficult by raising the number of signatures required and the number of legislative districts from where they must be gathered. Opponents complained that the changes essentially gave a handful of rural legislative districts veto power over the ballot initiative process.

Little vetoed that legislation, saying a federal judge might declare the law unconstitutional and force a new system on the state.

A U.S. District Court judge in a different case on June 1 dismissed a lawsuit challenging Idaho’s current ballot initiative process as unconstitutional because it requires signatures from multiple legislative districts. That ruling potentially clears the way for lawmakers to revisit the issue and make initiative signature gathering efforts much more difficult.