Who watches the watchers?

By Devon Downey

Freshman Senator C. Scott Grow has become the center of Idaho politics this year because of his initiative bill, S1159. Proponents argue it gives rural Idahoans more say while also modernizing the process. Opponents call it unconstitutional and punitive. Governor Little said in his veto letter that “the bills invite legal challenges that likely will result in the Idaho initiative process being determined by the liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals”.

S1159 would’ve reduced the time petitioners have to gather signatures by two-thirds. It would’ve increased the percentage of registered voters needed in each district from 6%-10%. It would’ve also increased the number of districts required from 18-32, among other changes.

The bill saw a strong public backlash. The House tried to address the criticism and introduced a trailer bill, H296.  It took the house two days to craft, debate and, pass the legislation. H296 would’ve made it so that the time reduction is only half (270 days as opposed to 18 months) and made it so that instead of 32 districts being needed to sign on, 24 districts would’ve been required.

Together, the changes would’ve reduced the time allowed to gather signatures by half, increase the signatures needed by nearly 67%, and require 6 more legislative districts to qualify for the ballot.

These bills drew bipartisan condemnation from across the state, with four former Attorneys General, the previous Secretary of State, and multiple newspaper editorial boards to request this bill be stopped before the Governor vetoed the bills.

So how did legislation as unpopular as these two bills make it to the governor’s desk? Partially because of Idaho lawmakers fears of outside money.

Senator Mary Souza argued that the bills were needed because “big money, whether it is from within the state or outside the state and very professional management groups are being used to bring in high technology… to pinpoint votes all over the state.” When debating H296, Souza continued by quoting a LA Times article about a California labor union that invests in The Fairness Project (a political committee that spent over $500,000 in both itemized and in-kind contributions to Idahoans for Healthcare in favor of Prop 2). “That [union] is simply one example of national groups that are targeting voter initiatives across the country as a way to advance their own agendas.”

These concerns cross political ideology, but with how much of the debate focused on outside money coming to the initiative process, we started looking at how this impacts other elections. Candidates also need to raise money for their own elections. Presumably, any concerns about influence from contributions by those outside of the area should also carry over to the legislators themselves. That means legislators should be just as concerned about money that is contributed from outside of the state or their districts as they are about outside money for initiatives.

Grow being at the center of the initiative bills means that he should be sensitive to these concerns, right?

Combing through the campaign finance data shows two things. First, that Grow didn’t gather the 50 signatures to qualify for the ballot but instead opted to pay the $30 fee to the Secretary of State. Second, it turns out that a majority of his money came from outside of his district.

Grow raised an astounding $114,000 for his 2018 campaign. For context, that was more than the winning candidates for Secretary of State, Treasurer, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Controller, and Attorney General raised.

Of that $114,000, $102,525 were itemized contributions to his campaign; the rest were either in-kind donations or below the reporting threshold. 61% of his itemized contributions came from outside his district. If that number sounds familiar, it is because 61% is roughly the same percent that Proposition 2 passed with statewide. Just over 55% of all of his contributions came from outside of District 14.

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While this is a large amount of money for a legislative race, it should be noted that one of his primary opponents raised over $80,000 and another over $30,000. District 14’s Republican Primary for the state senate was highly competitive, with five candidates receiving more than 10% of the vote. Grow won the primary receiving only 35.2% of the primary vote.

Grow’s main argument for his bill was that rural Idahoans deserve to be a part of the process, but it is hard to classify his own district as rural. District 14 has the largest number of voters, and because of the growth of the Treasure Valley, has seen many new residents since the last time districts were drawn.

The totals in District 14 also implies that his district likes having the initiatives. Both propositions passed in District 14, and over 98% of ballots cast in the district voted on the propositions.

Rep. Heather Scott noted in her floor debate against the initiative bills that Idaho’s demographics are changing, and that seeing the writing on the walls is not a good enough reason to change constitutional protections. She also expressed her disappointment that her constituents and their policy ideas are rarely taken up by either chamber of the legislature.

As supporters of Proposition 2 noted, having frequent ballot initiatives like California can be problematic. Reclaim Idaho founder Luke Mayville told the state affairs committee that it should be hard to get an initiative to qualify for the ballot so that doesn’t happen.

Money and influence in politics are universally panned, but as the Supreme Court has clarified, political spending and campaign contributions are considered protected speech under the First Amendment. While none of the money raised by either Proposition 2 or Senator Grow for their campaigns was illegal, concerns about out of district and out of state money are rampant.

For legislators who feel that there is undue influence on the ballot box by outside money, a better way to deal with the problem directly may be to tighten up the campaign finance rules.

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