SALT LAKE CITY -- A series of bills are being filed in the Utah State Legislature, tweaking how ballot initiatives get before voters and what happens after they pass.
Lawmakers insist they are not tampering with citizen rights to get a referendum, but one watchdog group questioned if it was "death by a thousand paper cuts." The bills are being proposed in the aftermath of three successful ballot initiatives dealing with medical marijuana, Medicaid expansion and gerrymandering.
"There needs to be tweaks to all of them. If they’re effective immediately, that could be very problematic," said Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, who is sponsoring House Bill 133.
Rep. Daw told FOX 13 his bill would delay implementation of ballot initiatives that successfully pass, so any problems can be dealt with. The bill is a direct response to the special session that came immediately after Proposition 2 (medical marijuana) went into effect. A bill that was the subject of compromise between sponsors and opponents of the medical cannabis initiative was quickly passed days after Prop. 2 went into effect.
"Let’s put that effective date back so we have time to come together and reach a real consensus and iron out any problems that may exist," he said.
Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, has filed House Bill 145, which makes a number of changes to the citizen referendum process. For example, Rep. Thurston said, he would propose allowing signature gathering and removal to go on simultaneously. Ballot initiative campaigns would have to turn in their signature packets every 14 days and county clerks would post them online.
"We’re trying to leverage that so it creates an even playing field for any person or group that wants to campaign for or against an initiative. So we don’t have people on the one side knowing who’s signed, but people on the other side not knowing who signed. So it’s going to be a level playing field," he said.
Rep. Thurston insisted his bill is looking out for the rights of individual voters.
"I have a problem with the idea that the right belongs to the group gathering the signatures or the group removing the signatures. The right belongs to the individual. The individual should have a fair opportunity to sign, and if they’ve signed they have a fair opportunity to remove that," he said.
But some watchdog groups, like the liberal think tank Alliance for a Better Utah, worry the bills are making it harder for citizens to get issues on the ballot and bypassing the legislature.
Lauren Simpson, ABU's policy director, said the legislature as a whole is uncomfortable with citizen ballot initiatives.
"What we’re seeing is death by a thousand paper cuts, making it incrementally more difficult for citizens to pass law on their own through ballot initiatives," she said.
Simpson said her group would be watching the bills, but also said not everything in them was bad. For example, she said, Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, has filed House Bill 88 that also moves the deadline for signature removal which she believed was "a good fix."
Still, ABU said it worried about whether this was a sign of things to come. The group said it had heard rumblings of a bill to raise signature thresholds for a citizen referendum to qualify for the ballot.
"Overall, the majority of the bills we’re seeing we’re deeply concerned about," Simpson said. "Because we feel like those bills are making it more difficult for ballot initiatives to get on the ballot and they’re really impeding that democratic process."
Rep. Daw said if lawmakers do too much with the initiative process, it could raise legal problems. The citizen referendum process is enshrined in Utah's constitution. But lawmakers also have the legal authority to modify initiatives.
"I don’t think it’s playing with fire if we can honestly go to our constituents and say yes, we are following your will but we are balancing that against all your competing interests to try to craft good policy," he said. "That’s what you elected us to do and that’s what I’m going to do."