Utah Legislature: Democrats, GOP spar over ethics initiative petitions

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 24 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — GOP senators sent targeted barbs at ethics initiative organizers during a debate over a bill that would allow petition signers to more easily remove names from initiatives and referendums.

Supporters of SB275 sought to paint ethics initiative organizers as "unethical," and the debate Tuesday often revolved around whether residents would make informed decisions when signing a petition.

"Some have said his bill is an assault on direct democracy, but this is an assault on hucksters," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

Other Republicans joined in, saying those who gather initiative signatures use "subterfuge" and "deceit" and have "bamboozled" residents into signing the ethics petitions.

Democrats fired back, with Sen. Ross Romero calling the Republicans' accusations "inappropriate."

The Salt Lake Democrat said the notion that residents do not make responsible decisions when signing petitions is misplaced.

"It's pretty clear that this is an uncamouflaged assault on the initiative process," he said.

Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake, unsuccessfully introduced an amendment that he said would close a loophole that could allow political parties or interest groups to find the "weakest links" on the petition and pressure signers to remove their names.

A Utah Republican Party leader told the Deseret News last week the party is considering an organized effort to remove names from the petitions, and opponents argue SB275 is custom-made to help the GOP prevent the ethics initiatives from making it on the ballot.

Republican supporters argued that initiatives and referendums have been abused in other states and this bill simply allows people to change their mind.

"I believe the process is too onerous," Stephenson said. "There is a significantly higher threshold to remove your name than to sign it."

The bill's sponsor said advocates who collect signatures often rely on "emotion and surface feelings" to convince residents to sign a petition. Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Lehi, agreed, saying ethics initiative supporters have used "false pretenses" to mislead people.

"You don't get a chance to read the actual petition when someone's shoving a clipboard in your face," he said.

SB275 passed 22-7 along party lines. It now awaits final passage in the Senate.

The bill may be read online at le.utah.gov/~2010/bills/static/SB0275.html.

e-mail: jsmith@desnews.com

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