By SEAN ELLIS
BOISE -- The legislature's rejection of legislation that would have defined animal torture has likely paved the way for ballot initiatives seeking to toughen Idaho's animal welfare laws, the bill's author says.
"I think we've left the door wide open for an initiative," Rep. Ken Andrus, chairman of the House Agricultural Affairs Committee, said.
The Republican rancher from Lava Hot Springs introduced a bill during the 2013 Idaho Legislature that would have defined animal torture and made a second offense of animal abuse a felony instead of the current third offense.
His bill passed the House but died in the Senate.
"In my opinion, they're actually daring an initiative to come forward," Andrus says of those who opposed his bill.
Idaho in 2012 became one of the last states in the nation to pass a felony provision for animal abuse but animal rights groups have threatened to push ballot initiatives unless the state further strengthens the law.
Besides a definition of torture, these groups also want to define neglect and are seeking a first-offense felony provision as well as mandatory jail time.
The Humane Society of the United States won't back a ballot initiative in 2013, but "after that, I don't know. (Beyond 2013), that one is wide open," said Lisa Kauffman, HSUS' Idaho director.
Kauffman said Andrus' bill was a good compromise and she is still hopeful the legislature will adequately address the issue. But if it doesn't, "I think (a ballot initiative) would be somewhat inevitable down the road and it would be quite a bit stronger than chairman Andrus' bill was."
"Idaho 1 of 3," another animal rights group not associated with HSUS, failed to gather enough valid signatures last year to get an animal abuse initiative on the ballot. The group gathered about 800 more signatures than required, but many were invalidated, Idaho 1 of 3 President Virginia Hemingway said.
Hemingway said her group has another ballot initiative prepared and board members will decide soon whether to make another run.
But a recently passed bill amended the state's ballot initiative process to require supporters to gather signatures from rural areas and a second try would be even more difficult, she acknowledges.
"It's a matter of deciding whether we want to go through that horrible process again," Hemingway said, adding that the bill "could make it impossible. It's an incredibly difficult process already."
But the bill won't deter HSUS should the group decide to push a ballot initiative, Kauffman said.
"We've done this before and we're good at it," she said. "The issue of animal cruelty is not going to go away."
Andrus believes his bill is a reasonable way to address the issue and warned fellow lawmakers during the recent legislative session that any ballot initiatives would be far stricter.
"We were warned that there will be action ... to address animal cruelty," he said. "It will either be through initiatives or legislation."