SALT LAKE CITY — Ethics initiative organizers on Monday accused Gov. Gary Herbert of seeking to "stymie citizen participation" after he signed a bill that will make it easier to remove petition signatures.
Herbert signed the controversial bill Saturday, despite a plea from initiative supporters calling on him to veto the legislation.
Citizen-initiative advocates predict the law will result in campaigns to harass petition-signers, as opponents try to persuade them to remove their signatures.
Under SB275, petition signers no longer need to have their removal request notarized and can remove their signatures up to a month after the petitions are due and become public. Organizers say the extended timeline for removal in SB275 will allow opponents to pressure signers to remove their signatures without allowing for more signatures to be gathered. Before the change, people could not remove their names after the petition was delivered to the lieutenant governor.
With a little more than two weeks left to gather signatures, leaders from various groups seeking to put initiatives on the November ballot gathered at the Capitol on Monday to protest the governor's move. Those groups included Utahns for Ethical Government, which is pushing ethics reform, and Fair Boundaries, which wants to change the way political districts are drawn.
"We believe Gov. Herbert tries to live by the basics of fair play and suspect he was personally uncomfortable with SB275. But it's just not fair to change the rules in the middle of a game as a way to win," UEG Chairman Kim Burningham said.
Herbert's spokeswoman, Angie Welling, said the governor did not consider the legislation a "fundamental change" to the initiative process.
"The governor analyzed all implications of this bill and believes that Utahns have an inherent right to remove their names from a petition," she said.
During his monthly news conference on KUED Channel 7 last week, Herbert said he thinks SB275's revisions are simply part of the "give and take of free speech."
"I think (if) people have the right to sign petitions, they ought to have the right to take their names off of petitions. It's that simple to me," he said.
But it's not that simple, say initiative proponents, who argue the changes give opponents an unfair advantage.
The groups also urged Herbert to veto HB112, which removes the deadline for the Utah Supreme Court to deal with legal challenges to initiatives. Welling said the governor will sign the bill.
Activist Paul Jacob, president of Citizens in Charge, a Virginia-based foundation that promotes initiative processes across the country, joined Utah organizers to decry both bills.
"This is arbitrary government. This is not conservative, this is not liberal, this is simply bad government," he said.
Jacob, who stressed he does not take a stand on the specific initiatives, said opponents could also sign the petition en masse, only to remove their names later in an effort to deceive signature-collectors.
Utah Republican Party Chairman Dave Hansen told the Deseret News the party is considering asking people to remove their signatures from the ethics petition but said the party has not asked its members to sign the petitions then remove their signatures later.
"We don't play those kind of games," he said.
UEG's Burningham refused to disclose how many of the nearly 100,000 required signatures his group has gathered but said organizers still have a lot of work ahead.
"We are on track to qualify," he said. "But due to (SB275) we will need far in excess of the minimum to be safe."