As of this column's deadline, supporters of the citizens initiative petitions, Utahns for Ethical Government and Fair Boundaries, don't know if they met the high standard of 95,000 voter signatures to get their initiatives on the November ballot.
That petition turn-in deadline was 5 p.m. Thursday, April 15.
In fact, petition organizers may not know their fate for a week or more.
While reaching 95,000 signatures — 10 percent of the people who voted in the last gubernatorial election — is tough to meet, the really hard part is getting 10 percent of voters in 26 of 29 state Senate districts.
Let me assume in this commentary that neither UEG nor Fair Boundaries reaches the requirements, set in law by the Utah Legislature. Then I say someone or some group should sue, seeking a ruling from the Utah Supreme Court on whether the current voter signature standards are unrealistic, and thus denying regular citizens their right under the state constitution to petition their government through initiative.
The high court, in a ruling several years ago on initiative standards, warned the Legislature that if lawmakers make the initiative standard too difficult, then in reality they are denying the citizens' constitutional right.
You know what really gets me in all of this?
Conservative Utah legislators talk all the time about constitutional rights. They go on ad nauseam about them. But when there is a constitutional right they don't like — like citizens initiatives — well, then, it's a different story.
The best I can tell, both the UEG and Fair Boundaries efforts are just what the Utah Constitution-writers were aiming at — true grass-roots citizen efforts to address state law in areas that legislators, because of their own conflicts of interests, selfishness or otherwise bullheadedness, simply will not act on.
And if these petition folks, nearly all of them volunteers (Fair Boundaries is paying its top staffer a small salary) can't make the signature-collection goals, then I think the law is too stringent.
Utah legislators, especially the dominant Republicans, don't like either petition. They especially hate the UEG initiative, which would ban all gifts from lobbyists to legislators, cap campaign contributions, set up an independent ethics commission and adopt a stringent code of conduct for lawmakers.
Democratic legislators actually like the Fair Boundaries initiative. Republicans dislike that one, also.
Fair Boundaries would set up an independent redistricting commission that would recommend to lawmakers new boundaries in U.S. House, legislative and State School Board districts after each 10-year Census. Now, GOP lawmakers (as the majority party) draw the lines. (Yes, they hold public hearings to take comment, and legislative Democrats get a vote. But when push comes to shove, it's the Democrats who suffer in the redrawing.)
If UEG and Fair Boundaries can't gather the 95,000 signatures after six months of an organized volunteer effort, then Utah basically doesn't have citizens initiative petitions — even if it is in the state Constitution. So if volunteer citizens can't do it, who can?
The answer is a paid effort backed by special interests.
And is that what we want here?
Some well-backed special interest group — be it gun-rights opponents or public school teachers or anti-immigration groups or anyone else — coming in here and running an initiative with paid signature gathers?
Look at what happened with the public school voucher fight of 2007. On the anti-voucher side we had the Utah Education Association, which was financially backed by the National Education Association, which poured millions of dollars into Utah. On the pro-voucher side, Patrick Byrne, owner of Overstock.com, put in several million bucks.
So, what the failure of UEG and Fair Boundaries means (if they don't make the ballot) is don't waste your time and effort on a grass-roots citizens initiative. Go find yourself a really rich backer or a special interest group that will put up cash. Then hire professional petition gatherers to get the job done.
On the other side of the issue, make sure your initiative doesn't anger some really powerful political groups — like the Utah Republican Party and majority legislators.
Otherwise, they will pass a new law to hamper your efforts in midstream — like they did this year.8 comments on this story
(A quick aside here. I'm getting a kick out of Republicans crying foul that UEG attorneys are asking a federal court for a restraining order to keep petition signees' names private — if that is granted it will thwart the GOP's anti-initiative effort. Now you GOP legislators know what UEG supporters felt when you passed a law making it easier to get names off of petitions. Sweets to the sweet, I say.)
So, if the petition supporters fail to get the 95,000 signatures, it's time for the Utah Supreme Court to weigh in on Utah's high initiative thresholds.
If the justices say that's fair play, fine.
But it's clear you can't trust the Utah Legislature to make that call.
Deseret News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.