Saturday, February 24, 2024

Idaho voters can be trusted to responsibly exercise their initiative rights

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It was a bit surprising to read an opinion piece that Representative Lance Clow (R-Twin Falls) has circulated to media outlets around the state, warning Idahoans against signing the Open Primaries Initiative. He accused the supporters of the initiative of having “ulterior motives” with the goal “to give the Idaho Democratic Party an increased opportunity.” If that is the goal, one might be left to wonder why Butch and Lori Otter, former Senator Denton Darrington, former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, former JFAC co-chair Maxine Bell, and a host of other Republicans from across the state have come together to urge approval of the initiative.

It is instructive to consider this legislator’s view of the initiative process because it tells us much about what has happened in our Legislature since the closed GOP primary came into being in 2012. Following the defeat of the three Luna education laws by citizen referendums that year, the Legislature enacted a law in its 2013 session, making it much more difficult to get an initiative or referendum on the ballot. It was Clow’s first legislative session, and he, who has often been considered a moderate, stood up for the people’s initiative rights, being one of very few Republicans who voted against the law.

Just eight years later, after Idaho voters resoundingly approved Reclaim Idaho’s initiative to expand our Medicaid program, Clow joined most of his GOP colleagues in approving a law making it virtually impossible to pass another initiative or referendum. The Idaho Supreme Court struck the law down for depriving Idahoans of their constitutional right to make laws with the initiative and use the referendum to veto legislative enactments. 

In 2022, Clow opposed an initiative to increase K-12 funding by about $330 million per year. But, when the governor called a special session to nip the initiative in the bud and raise funding slightly more than the initiative, Clow voted for that legislation. He now opposes the Open Primaries Initiative. What happened between 2013 and the present?

I would submit that the closed GOP primary, aided and abetted by the malign influence of the Idaho Freedom Foundation and its dark money allies, has created a toxic atmosphere in the Legislature, making it difficult for well-meaning legislators like Clow to do their jobs. Republicans who exercise independent judgment and fail to heed IFF’s “guidance” on culture war issues end up with low ratings on IFF’s various rating indexes. They are vilified by IFF’s gigantic propaganda media machine. They are labeled as “moderates” or RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). They are primaried in the low-turnout GOP primary by IFF-approved, extreme-right candidates.

And if there is anything the Freedom Foundation hates, it is the right of Idahoans to get around an IFF-dominated Legislature by running initiatives and referendums. The IFF has made every effort to nullify that sacred right. They wield considerable influence over the laws produced by the Legislature, which they largely control, but they have much less ability to control the outcome of initiative and referendum elections.

Clow is not a puppet of the IFF, as many legislators are, but with the increasingly extreme legislatures that have resulted since the closing of the GOP primary in 2012, he could be excused for casting a few votes in favor of IFF’s priorities. The way to free up legislators to vote reasonably and pragmatically on substantive issues — those that will improve the lives of Idahoans — is to eliminate the closed GOP primary and allow all Idaho voters to take part in selecting those who will hold important elective offices.

Clow ends his opinion by implying that voters, unlike legislators, do not have the ability to carefully and responsibly make laws. In truth and fact, Idaho voters have always sparingly and responsibly exercised their initiative rights. They don’t blindly sign initiative petitions. If they have concerns about what a measure may do, they have the brains to ask questions before signing. When compared with Idaho’s recent legislative sessions, which have been so utterly dysfunctional and non-productive, Idaho’s initiative sponsors and voters have a remarkable track record. 

Idahoans are enthusiastically embracing the Open Primaries Initiative, and it is virtually certain to be on the 2024 general election ballot. Its approval next year will restore reasonable, responsible, and responsive governing in the Gem State.


Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served 8 years as Idaho Attorney General (1983-1991) and 12 years as a Justice on the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017). His columns are collected at JJCommonTater.com.

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