Though voters in liberal states like California are used to approving benefits for themselves via the initiative process, only once in Idaho’s history have Gem State voters been asked to approve a public benefit at the ballot box. That proposal passed in 1942, but it was the law for just a few months. This forgotten history is important because Idaho voters are expected to be asked in November to approve Medicaid expansion.
In 1942, 68 percent of Idaho voters approved the Senior Citizens’ Grants Act. The act was to provide $40 monthly pensions, along with medical and dental benefits, for Idahoans 65 and older. At the time, the measure was the fifth initiative to be placed on the ballot by Idaho voters, and it was only the second initiative voters approved (the first was the 1938 Fish and Game Commission Act).
However, voters weren’t asked to provide a way to pay for the pensions and benefits, nor did they approve one. Gov. Clarence A. Bottolfsen, a Republican, told lawmakers at the opening of the wartime 1943 legislative session that they needed to be economical as they worked to balance the state budget. But, he acknowledged one “apparent exception” to his call for a thrifty budget, the voter-approved Senior Citizens' Grant Act.
Bottolfsen told the joint session of the House and Senate, “To meet the act’s requirements of increased public assistance to the aged, it becomes necessary to raise more revenue.”
Without direction from the governor how to pay for it and no clear accounting of how much the program would cost, lawmakers feared they would have to impose a sales tax to meet the program’s annual obligation. At the time, Idaho had no sales tax.
Sen. Harry Harn, a Republican who represented Clark County, warned, “Nothing less than a 6 percent broad base sales tax would be able to raise the amount needed under the Grants Act.” The battle was joined. Lawmakers would have to choose between a popularly-supported program, only recently approved by voters, and a generally-disliked sales tax.
Bottolfsen’s preference became clear on Jan. 12, as the governor called for a five percent sales tax to pay for the pensions and benefits. But throughout the Legislature, opposition to the sales tax mounted; repeal of the voter-approved pension appeared more likely.
On Jan. 27, 1943, the House of Representatives voted 40-19 to repeal the Senior Citizens’ Grants Act. The Senate moved quickly on the House’s repeal of the Grants Act, and voted on a Saturday 33-11 in favor of the repeal.
Despite the Legislature’s action, no one knew for sure how the governor would respond. He gave vague, uncommitted answers to reporters about whether he’d sign or veto the bill. His reveal came during a Saturday speech to a joint session of the Legislature.
The Grants Act “has joined with all other patriotic endeavors of Idaho and has gone to war. … “It is not fair,” the governor said, “to economize elsewhere to provide more money for pensions.” He continued:
My reluctance at signing this bill [to repeal the pensions law] is deep-seated. I have always felt that the voice of the people should not be ignored, but I am equally confident that if the people themselves could view the financial picture of the state of Idaho as I have viewed it and realize the many demands which are to be made upon the people in the future, they would commend the legislature and myself for the step that is now taken. … Many thousands of our young men are in the armed services at this time, and many additional thousands are likely to be called before hostilities cease. That means everyone of us must undergo untold sacrifice. I sincerely hope that those who may feel aggrieved at my action in [approving the repeal of the pension law] will realize during this strenuous period of world chaos that all of us must enlist for the duration.
There are other valid reasons, wartime or not, for Idaho voters, the Legislature and the governor to reject welfare-by-ballot proposals, such as Medicaid expansion. More on that next week.