Idaho Leaders Ok Paying Legal Fees In Ballot Initiative Case

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Gov. Brad Little, leaders in the state House and Senate and the attorney general on Monday approved paying $152,000 in legal fees to the winning side after Idaho lost a court challenge to a new law making it harder for voters to get initiatives on the ballot.

The four Republicans who comprise the Constitutional Defense Council voted 4-0 to pay the court-ordered legal fees to attorneys for Reclaim Idaho and the Committee to Protect and Preserve the Idaho Constitution.

House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder each said after the meeting they would prefer that no new ballot initiative legislation be brought forward in the regular legislature session that starts in January.

“I'm not aware of anything and I haven't heard of anything for the upcoming session,” Winder said after the vote. “Hopefully, we'll just leave it where it is for now and move on, and maybe (there'll be) an appropriate time in the future when it comes back again.”

Bedke agreed, saying there should be a “cooling off” period.

But both lawmakers acknowledged some type of ballot initiative legislation could be introduced by other lawmakers.

Republican lawmakers earlier this year approved the initiative measure with no Democratic support. Little then signed into law the measure requiring signature-gatherers to get 6% of registered voters in each of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts in 18 months.

The Idaho Supreme Court in August rejected the law, saying the legislation was so restrictive it violated the state’s constitution. It also ordered the state to pay Reclaim Idaho’s attorney fees.

That ruling caused the ballot initiative process to revert to requiring signatures from 6% of registered voters in each of 18 of the state's 35 legislative districts in 18 months.

Little after the meeting was noncommittal about whether the current ballot initiative process was right for the state.

“We’ll see,” he said. “This is a dynamic process.”

Voter-driven ballot initiatives, which act as a check on the Legislature, have become a major focus in the state in recent years following a successful referendum canceling lawmaker-approved changes to education in 2013 and a ballot initiative approving Medicaid expansion in 2018 after lawmakers failed to act for years. Reclaim Idaho spearheaded the Medicaid expansion initiative.

Little in 2020 vetoed different legislation aimed at making the ballot initiative process tougher, fearing it would be overturned and a federal court would dictate the state’s ballot initiative process.

But a U.S. Circuit Court later that year dismissed a federal lawsuit challenging Idaho’s ballot initiative process — the one now in place — as unconstitutional because it requires signatures from multiple legislative districts. That ruling cleared the way for lawmakers to make the initiative process much more difficult while reducing the chance of a court making the process easier.

And that’s what lawmakers did earlier this year. Backers of the new law said it was needed because the current process favored urban voters, allowing signature gatherers to focus much of their efforts in cities. Opponents said the new law makes it impossible to get initiatives on ballots because a single legislative district has veto power over the entire process.

Little when he signed the measure into law noted he still had concerns about it’s constitutionality, but signed it anyway, saying, “I believe the bill presents a much closer call.”

Reclaim Idaho and the Committee to Protect and Preserve the Idaho Constitution shortly after Little’s signing filed lawsuits in state court, saying the new law violated the state’s constitution because it made the ballot initiative process impossible. The two lawsuits were combined.

The Idaho Supreme Court unanimously voted in August to reject the new law, saying lawmakers don’t have “a free pass to override constitutional constraints and legislate a right into non-existence, even if the legislature believes doing so is in the people’s best interest.”

The Constitutional Defense Fund, created in 1995 to defend Idaho’s sovereignty, had paid out more than $3 million in lost court battles and had a balance of just under $1.3 million before Monday’s action by the council.