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The Props Go Down

Idahoans ponder the initiative process after elections

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The clearest, most resounding victor of election day 2006 did not wear a sharp business suit or have a firm handshake. Instead, a diverse coalition of interests brought down what seemed like a moneyed juggernaut: Proposition 2, a property "takings" initiative.

With as many as 76 percent of precincts reporting early Wednesday, Proposition 2 appeared to be headed to defeat, with 76 percent voting against the measure.

After watching a New York businessman pour millions of dollars into Western states to push his Libertarian agenda, some Idahoans are wondering if the state's political processes are up to such challenges.

Real estate tycoon Howard Rich was the primary backer of Proposition 2, pushed locally by anti-tax activist Laird Maxwell.

Except for $50 donated by Maxwell, virtually the entire budget for his group, "This House is My Home," came from out of state, according to reports from the Idaho Secretary of State. Fully $100,000 came from Montana-based America At Its Best, a group that lists Maxwell as its treasurer. But $237,000 came from the New York-based Fund for Democracy, which is headed by Rich, a libertarian activist. In fact, Maxwell readily admits he started America At Its Best to help draw money from out-of-state donors.

To get the measure onto the ballot in Idaho, Maxwell and Rich hired a Colorado-based signature-gathering firm, to scour Idaho for signatures, eventually winning a place on Idaho's ballot.

Although opponents developed a full-fledged campaign against Proposition 2, garnering support from across the political spectrum in Idaho, it wasn't a slam-dunk, said Justin Hayes, who took time off from Idaho Conservation League to help develop Neighbors Protecting Idaho, which opposed Proposition 2.

"Just the mere fact that a single wealthy guy can put the entire state of Idaho on the defensive, and take us away from solving problems we want to solve, means that maybe the process he used is not operating the way it should," Hayes said.

Although the initiative process is cherished in Idaho, it has not brought the lengthy ballots faced by voters in Oregon, where as many as a dozen ballot measures can join regular candidates on voter lists.

Senator Brad Little, an Emmett Republican who joined the fight against Proposition 2, said the process has made him want to take another look at the initiative process, at least in part.

"It's prudent for us to re-analyze this," Little said. "We sure don't want an Oregon or California situation, where there's an industry of paid signature-gatherers."

Then again, he added quickly, he would hate to be accused of stifling citizen access to the legislative process via initiatives.

"One of our responsibilities is to at least not put barriers to voter participation," he said.

Sen. David Langhorst, a Boise Democrat who opposed Proposition 2, said he felt the system still wasn't a slam-dunk for even the wealthy backers.

"I don't think it's an easy thing to get on the ballot," Langhorst said. Further, although he and others might want to do away with paid signature-gatherers, he doubts that they can be removed, under Idaho's Constitution.

But the discussion isn't likely to go away.

"Are there issues that should be discussed? Certainly," said Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. As the state's lawyer, Wasden and his deputies would have had to defend the state against the challenges that would have arisen against Proposition 2 claims. In September one of Wasden's deputies made it plain that if Proposition 2 passed, a flurry of lawsuits would follow.

But while Proposition 2 triggered a vigorous response, the reaction to Proposition 1 was mixed. While the measure, which would have required the Legislature to spend as much as $200 million more per year on education, had a widespread and well-funded campaign, it nonetheless looked like it was headed for defeat in the wee hours of election night.

Unlike Proposition 2, the education measure was a local effort driven by Idaho's teachers' union, with a mixture of paid campaign staff and volunteers, said Ryan Hill, a spokesman for the group.

"You always look at all your options," Hill said. "Any time you're going to ask Idahoans to raise taxes on themselves, even on something as important as education, it's going to be uphill."

The original proposal for Proposition 1 was to raise Idaho's sales tax by 1 percent to pay for education spending increases that would have gone to local school districts. But after the August 25 special session of the Legislature, that 1 percent raise was gone, and the proposition instead demanded the Legislature to find the money another way. With that change, support for the proposition waned, but not admiration for the way it got onto the ballot.

"I'm pretty sympathetic to the Proposition 1 people," Little said. "They did it the way our forefathers expected it to be done."

Hill said although it's people-intensive­--his campaign used 10 paid campaign staff and 3,400 volunteers, he said--it tends to create a more reliable base of support, he said. "That method pays off, because you build support at the ground level," Hill said. "If you can tap into the grass roots, you can not only get something onto the ballot, you might win."

Another grass-roots effort that had trouble getting over the hump was the Boise 10 Commandments vote. Although results were not definitive by the time BW went to press, the measure did not receive overwhelming support. With less than half of the 104 precincts reporting, the measure was down 10 points, 55 percent to 45 percent. The measure, if it passes, refutes the Boise City Council decision to move a 10 Commandments monument out of Julia Davis Park. The outcome is still in flux, but there's no denying that religious activists Brandi Swindell and Reverend Brian Fischer pursued an aggressive campaign, including phone banks, mail drops and other grass-roots efforts.

Although Idaho has not wanted for interesting candidate-based races, including the race for governor, Congress and other key state positions, it was often the initiatives that created the most chatter, as citizens parsed the language they created and the campaigns that backed them.

"I've spent more time talking about ballot initiatives than I have my own campaign," Little said.

Not that he needed to worry; as of late Wednesday morning, he was ahead, by almost 50 points in his race.

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