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Judge rules in favor of education funding ballot initiative

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge on Tuesday ordered Idaho officials to decide by Friday afternoon whether to put an education funding initiative on the November ballot or allow an additional seven weeks for electronic signature gathering.

U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill issued the order after granting a preliminary injunction to Reclaim Idaho, a group that backs citizen initiatives, to temporarily alter the state’s laws for signature gathering.

The education funding initiative seeks to raise $170 million for K-12 education by raising Idaho’s corporate tax rate and increasing taxes on individuals making $250,000 a year or higher.

Reclaim Idaho in a lawsuit filed earlier this month said that Republican Gov. Brad Little’s statewide stay-at-home order in late March due to the coronavirus pandemic didn’t include exceptions for ballot initiative signature gathering.

The group in the lawsuit against Little and Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, also a Republican, said that violated the First Amendment-protected process of signature gathering, a form of political speech.

Winmill in granting the injunction said Reclaim Idaho was likely to win the case and, except for the pandemic, likely would have gathered enough signatures for the initiative to appear on the November ballot.

“This decision is a surprising exercise of judicial activism,” Little and Denney said in a statement. “We plan to appeal this decision immediately.”

Under Winmill’s ruling, if Idaho doesn’t agree to put the initiative on the November ballot, it will have to extend signature gathering another seven weeks and allow electronic signatures, something never before allowed for ballot initiatives.

The state attorney general’s office had argued that granting the injunction would be an intrusion by the judicial branch into the state’s election process.

Little issued an emergency declaration on March 13 after the virus was confirmed in the state and then on March 25 a stay-at-home order as the virus appeared to be spreading out of control. The order was later extended to April 30 — the last day allowed for collecting ballot initiative signatures.

The stay-at-home order barred activities considered “non-essential,” like gathering signatures.

Reclaim Idaho at the time said it had already gathered more than half of the roughly 55,000 signatures needed ahead of the April 30 deadline and was close to meeting other requirements on how many signatures needed to be collected from different legislative districts.

Winmill noted the group was ahead of the pace it set for successfully getting Medicaid expansion on the ballot in 2018, adding that Medicaid expansion was likely less popular than the education funding initiative.

“Of course, all of that is a little uncertain because they weren’t allowed to complete the process,” Winmill said in ruling from the bench. He said a written decision would be issued soon.

Winmill noted that the state successfully switched to a mail-in primary in May, but didn’t take any action when it came to ballot initiatives.

But Winmill didn’t fault Little or Denney in his ruling, calling the case a “fascinating and challenging legal issue.”

He also said time was of the essence in the case because coronavirus cases are on the rise, and heavily populated Ada County in southwestern Idaho is returning to more restrictive measures in an attempt to halt the spread.

“What I think is clear is that the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into the works,” Winmill said. “It has also created tremendous uncertainty.”

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