A proposed ‘check’ on the legislature’s power to modify citizen ballot initiatives

SALT LAKE CITY -- Groups across the political spectrum are pushing back on the legislature's power to modify or replace a citizen ballot initiative, in the aftermath of significant changes to medical cannabis and Medicaid expansion initiatives.

A former state lawmaker is now proposing a bill he believes would offer a "check and balance."

"Right now, it’s too easy to disregard what hundreds of thousands of citizens tell them through the initiative process," said Steve Urquhart, a former Republican senator from St. George.

Urquhart is meeting with lawmakers in hopes of pushing a bill that would add an automatic referendum (a public vote) on any substantial modification the legislature makes to a citizen ballot initiative. He hopes to find a sponsor for it to be in the 2020 legislative session.

"I think a lot of citizens right now are feeling that the legislature is pushing too hard against the people’s power to make laws," he said in an interview with FOX 13 on Thursday.

Urquhart has some personal experience with initiatives. He ran bills to undercut the civil asset forfeiture initiative in 2004 and pushed the controversial school vouchers bill that led to a citizen referendum in 2007.

"I am the only legislator in the history of Utah to pass a bill that the citizens felt was so bad they rose up by referendum and said, 'No, that’s not going to be law,'" he joked, adding that this push to protect initiatives is "repenting" for it.

Urquhart offered some criticism of his former colleagues on Capitol Hill, suggesting there is some arrogance about citizen ballot initiatives. He believes the proposed bill could force a dialogue between supporters of an initiative and lawmakers.

"If they knew the people could pass a law that really stuck on cannabis, on Medicaid, I guarantee you the conversations would have been much different," he said.

Other groups have been planning their own efforts to protect the initiative process. The United Utah Party on Wednesday told FOX 13 it was contemplating a ballot initiative that would protect ballot initiatives. Medical cannabis advocates have taken the state to court, making a number of legal arguments against the legislature and the governor's authority to modify and replace initiatives.

Urquhart said it is his preference to run a bill through the very legislature that modified initiatives, but he would not rule out an initiative on initiatives.

So far, Urquhart's idea of a bill has found support among supporters of the last two ballot initiatives to be replaced.

"Ballot initiatives should be implemented, period. However, having the public approve legislative changes is the next best thing," said Matt Slonaker with the Utah Health Policy Project, which supported Proposition 3. "There is no point in having ballot initiatives at all if they get highjacked to do things outside of the spirit of the public will."

Christine Stenquist of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE) has been working with Urquhart on it and said she believes it would balance the scale between lawmakers and the people.

"You’re going to think twice before you go and undermine the voters who put you in office," she said.

Rebecca Chavez-Houck, a former Democratic state lawmaker who now heads up Proposition 4 sponsor Better Boundaries (which passed an anti-gerrymandering initiative) was interested.

"Voters want to know that their intention will be upheld, but there also has to be some flexibility maintained in case technical changes need to be made," she said. "We look forward to hearing more about the proposed legislation."

But Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, questioned the practicality of such a law. He said that if a ballot initiative needed to be modified, then the implementation of it would be delayed even more than what voters wanted.

Thurston, who ran bills to tweak how ballot initiatives get before voters in this past legislative session, insisted the system in place now is working.

"The checks and balances are there. Any law the legislature passes, if it passes by less than two-thirds majority can be placed for referendum," he said. "Or, if it passes by more than two-thirds, you can file an initiative to change that again the next go around."

Stenquist said she believes "the system is broken." She urged people who turned out to support medical cannabis at the ballot box to stay engaged for another round with the legislature.

"I hope that people didn’t think that they would show up to one election and they would change the entire state," Stenquist told FOX 13. "This is a process and we need people to stay engaged. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and this is tough work."

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