by Dan Richardson
For the second time in recent history, Idaho's Supreme Court has ruled that an aspect of term limits law may be ill-advised but that it is constitutional.
The justices handed down their most recent ruling on Friday, saying that the Legislature's repeal of the citizens' initiative instituting term limits was legal. Once the state enacts an initiative, wrote the court, "it is like any other law. It may be amended or repealed by the legislature."
Previously, in December, the court threw out a lawsuit by a number of incumbent politicians to overturn term limits.
That means that with voters racing toward that Republican Party relay race known as the Idaho primary elections, the state's nine-year term limits struggle has amounted to -- well, nothing.
Nothing, that is, unless voters get steamed during the May 28 primaries. Then it could be something. Something big, believes Don Morgan, the state's chief term limits promoter.
"We think there's going to be a lot of [incumbents] who pay a price for their vote to repeal" the term limits initiative, says Morgan, a Post Falls stock broker and chairman of Citizens for Term Limits.
Political insiders are less sure that term limits represent a rousing issue, but there's little debate they've constituted a turbulent one. Voters passed the "Term Limits Act" in 1994 and supported the measure again in a 1998 advisory vote. A number of incumbent elected officials around the state failed to persuade the courts to throw the law out in 2000 and 2001. Then state legislators, predominantly Republican, repealed it earlier this year.
Next, two Idahoans -- Roland Almgren of Coeur d'Alene and Ronda Gibbons of Boise -- filed suit against the state (technically, against the Secretary of State) to repeal the repeal. That suit was narrowly focused on the question of whether the Legislature could declare an emergency -- thus enacting the repeal immediately, to protect incumbents before the May primary, instead of letting the repeal take effect as usual in July.
In other words, explains Couer d'Alene lawyer Starr Kelso, can citizens question the legislature's declaration of an emergency? "And the court's answer was no."
Propelled by tens of thousands of dollars from a large and experienced national ally, U.S. Term Limits, "the broader struggle continues on, and it's not just in the courts," says Morgan, the term limits proponent. Morgan's group and allies are striking on three fronts:
* The Courts: Attorney Kelso is handling another term limits suit, this one in district court, focusing on the question of whether the Republican legislators' secret caucus prior to the repeal vote undermined the legally binding public vote. There is also talk of seeking relief in federal court.
* An Initiative: Morgan says his group, with almost 200 paid signature-gatherers, will have the necessary 43,000-plus signatures by May 14 to put the Legislature's repeal to a November vote.
* Politics: The politics of the struggle appears to have energized some third-party candidates, and even a number of major party candidates running against entrenched interests.
"This is the worst mistake that the Republican Party has made in Idaho in a hundred years," says Morgan.
Well, probably not, says University of Idaho political scientist Florence Heffron, director of the school's Bureau of Public Affairs Research. Legislatures have repealed initiatives before, Heffron notes, and besides, when polled, voters say it's the bread-and-butter issues like education and crime that matter most.
"Term limits never really does get a blip on the poll," says Heffron.
It could be an issue combined with other sources of discontent, she says, but "I'm still not convinced for the majority of voters that this is a gut issue."
Idaho Republican Party Chairman Trent Clark, of Soda Springs, says he thinks term limits will be a non-issue. After all, GOP activists at the 2000 convention told legislators the repeal was a good idea; so, says Clark, the Legislature was on the right side of the issue, even if party politicos haven't articulated it well. And ultimately, the issue isn't term limits, he says, but ballot access.
"They're not the same thing," says Clark.
The 1994 term limits initiative didn't actually limit anyone's time in office. Rather, it prohibited county clerks from listing the names of incumbents of a certain term on voters' ballots. Incumbents could still run write-in campaigns.
Ballot access isn't a term limits issue, argues Clark -- it's about free speech.
"What if it's something else? What if it's you're not politically correct?" he asks. "What if it's you're too 'extreme' on an issue? Should the clerk be told not to print your name on the ballot?"
While Republicans are united that limiting ballot names is a bad idea, according to Clark, the party remains split on term limits themselves: "We're right down the middle."
Given the GOP's lock on Idaho, most people running for office still have (R) after their name. That also makes the primary election often the real contest to watch. It was vital for incumbents and for the state Republican Party to preserve their ballot access with the Legislature's emergency provision in the repeal.
In the brouhaha, Libertarians see an opportunity to run on an issue, rather than just a political platform. The party has fielded candidates in greater numbers than in elections past, with capital-Ls running for U.S. Senate, governor and numerous state House and Senate seats, including several in the Panhandle.
"There's a flood of candidates in this year's legislative elections. Clearly, they think [term limits] will be an issue," says Heffron.
The party chairman could not be reached for comment.
If the Libertarians make headway, it will likely mean converting Republican voters, says Heffron. "That may well mean it gives Democrats a better shot."
That, says the Republicans' Clark, isn't going to happen. Republican legislators who voted for the repeal generally made their positions known beforehand, or else just voted as their districts wanted, he says.
Voters, says Clark, "knew what they were getting."