State lawmakers make no bones about it, they don't like citizen initiatives. They contend that the legislative process better serves the electorate because important proposals undergo the legislative hearing process, where members of the public can express their support or concerns for various proposals. Then, the legislation must pass both houses and be signed into law by the governor, who also has the option of a veto.
In concept, we agree with that argument.
On occasion, the Legislature is at loggerheads with public opinion on certain issues. Then, citizens can avail themselves of the initiative process. But the Legislature has set a steep burden for people to place questions on the state ballot — gather signatures equal to 10 percent of the people who voted in the last gubernatorial election, including 10 percent of voters in 26 of 29 state Senate districts.
This requirement, upheld by the Utah Supreme Court in 2004, appears to guarantee one of two outcomes: that citizen backers of initiatives cannot meet the threshold or that special interest organizations back efforts to pay workers to collect the needed signatures. Neither encourages true grass-roots, citizen involvement.
That was true for the Safe to Learn, Safe To Worship initiative effort. This was also the case for the recent Fair Boundaries initiative that failed to get the 95,000 voter signatures needed for the November ballot. The initiative sought to establish an independent redistricting commission to redraw the U.S. House, legislative and state school board districts after the 2010 Census. The commission would have made a recommendation to the Legislature, which would have had the final say.
Contrast that to the 2007 citizen initiative effort to repeal a school voucher law passed by the Legislature. The initiative effort was largely backed by the National Education Association. Its chief opponent, Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, spent several millions fighting the initiative, which was ultimately approved by Utah voters.
Like the Fair Boundaries initiative, a second citizen initiative backed by Utahns for Ethical Government also failed to collect a sufficient number of signatures to make this November's ballot. That initiative would set up an independent ethics commission for the Legislature, cap donations and adopt a stringent code of ethics requirements for lawmakers.
Utahns for Ethical Government has announced it will continue to seek to gather signatures to place the issue on the ballot in 2012. That move, which backers say is allowed under state law, could face a legal challenge.
If that weren't sufficient intrigue, UEG obtained a temporary restraining order last week to keep the names of petition signees private. The GOP, which opposes both initiatives, has contemplated contacting signees to remove their names from the petition.
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These events suggest that the bar may be too high for authentic, grass-roots movements to place issues on Utah's ballot. Although the Supreme Court says the law is constitutional, it clearly puts ordinary citizens at an extreme disadvantage in collecting sufficient names or, worse, encourages special interests to hijack the process.
One of the oft-heard arguments against a lower threshold is that Utah does not want to become another California — a state where "citizen" initiatives are a dime a dozen. There is little danger of that under the current requirement. The greater danger is setting the bar so high that citizens are effectively squeezed out of this means to place important issues on the Utah ballot.