Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said Feb. 21 a proposed voter initiative to privatize Idaho’s lucrative hard liquor business might be illegal because the state constitution says such decisions are the Legislature’s purview.
In January, the Idaho Federation of Reagan Republicans submitted a citizen’s initiative to privatize liquor sales in Idaho and eliminate the Liquor Division. In addition, the Northwest Grocery Association is pursuing privatization, but says it will ask the 2013 Legislature to weigh in before going the initiative route.
Wasden’s office reviewed the Reagan Republican’s proposed initiative aiming for the November 2012 ballot and concluded that a 78-year-old constitutional provision makes an initiative vulnerable to constitutional challenge. Since 1934, the Idaho Constitution has given the Legislature full power and authority to regulate the sale of intoxicating liquors, Wasden wrote.
“Since this provision grants the Legislature ‘full power and authority,’ a question arises as to whether the Legislature’s power in this arena can be checked by the people’s exercise of the initiative power,” he wrote. “No case law exists on this issue, but in the event the initiative passes, this provision may reflect one avenue by which the initiative could be challenged under the Idaho Constitution.”
Jeff Ward, with the Reagan Republicans group, said Feb. 21 that he’s only briefly reviewed the attorney general’s opinion but believes it’s probably open to interpretation.
“I’m not a lawyer, but in an initiative, the people are acting as the Legislature,” Ward said. “If that were the case, it would seem that that section of the Constitution would contradict the section pertaining to initiatives.”
Ward said his group is reviewing the certificate before pressing forward with attempts to collect just over 47,000 registered voters’ signatures necessary to put it on the ballot. There’s not much time to collect signatures before the April 30 deadline.
Idaho’s conservative founders in 1890 made it clear that they feared the consequences of hard liquor. “The first concern of all good government is the virtue and sobriety of the people,” they wrote.
And during the repeal of federal prohibition in the 1930s, Idaho’s leaders again made sure to underscore their suspicion of the impact of intoxicating spirits on the populace’s morals.
According to amendments that took effect in 1934, the state constitution made it clear that the “Legislature of the state of Idaho shall have full power and authority to permit, control and regulate or prohibit the manufacture, sale, keeping for sale, and transportation for sale, of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes.”
Voters in neighboring Washington state passed an initiative in November privatizing liquor sales there.
If a privatization initiative were ruled by the Idaho Supreme Court to be unconstitutional, it would make it much tougher to put liquor in the hands of private businesses in Idaho.
That’s because the Legislature, a quarter of whose members are Mormons and shun alcohol, appears largely satisfied with the current system that produces about $50 million in profit annually. So does Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, who said in January he’s convinced this is one area where government has an appropriate role because of its interest in preserving temperance.