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Jay Evensen: Editorial: Utah bill makes citizen initiatives harder

Published: Thursday, March 10 2011 9:50 a.m. MST

Utah lawmakers weren't kidding when they insisted on defining the state as a republic, and not a democracy.

To prove the point, they further eroded a popular piece of direct democracy. Thanks to SB165, which now awaits Gov. Gary Herbert's signature, getting an initiative petition on the ballot will be even harder in the future, and Utah has never been a particularly easy state in that regard.

In a year when people focused on the really egregious assaults on accountable government — such as HB477, which makes virtually all government records secret — the initiative law got little notice. But it's apparent that the recent petition to force tough new ethics rules on legislators, which came up short but was close enough to force a few new rules, hit home.

Sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, and Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, the bill indirectly increases the number of signatures an initiative would have to gather in order to pass muster. Currently, that number is 10 percent of the number of people who voted in the last governor's race from at least 26 of the 29 state senate districts. The new rules would change that to 10 percent of those who voted in the presidential race. The difference in numbers is slight. In 2008, it amounted to about 12,000 more votes for president than governor. But Utah held a special election for governor in 2010, and that attracted almost 400,000 fewer voters than the presidential race in 2010. Lawmakers clearly didn't want anyone taking advantage of a one-time opportunity for an easier path to the ballot.

But the assault on the ethics petitions lies in the part of SB165 that specifically outlaws electronic signatures on petitions, something supporters tried to use. Lump this with HB477, which makes all e-mail and texts by public officials secret, and you have ample evidence Utah lawmakers will have to be dragged screaming into the 21st century, where electronic communications dominate all aspects of life.

I've long had reservations about citizen initiatives. The nation's founders clearly didn't like them, and for good reason. Initiatives are, however, attractive mechanisms for forcing lawmakers to follow the will of the people.

While I'm all for making the requirements strict enough to keep the ballot from looking like a California-style mess, initiatives can be especially important for accountability in a state dominated by one political party. Even before this year, Utah's requirements were so strict as to make a petition drive nearly impossible for all but professional campaigns run by well-heeled out-of-state interest groups.

I'm also fairly certain most members of the tea party would favor giving greater power to the people.

But then, the anger that swept the nation with that movement last year seemed to take on a different tone in Utah, which already was a conservative stronghold. Here it became a license to protect a particular brand of conservative ideology from all challengers, which translated, in this year's legislative session, into efforts to protect the power of those who already had acquired it.

That meant making it harder for the people to uncover wrongdoing or to correct it through initiatives. And that, of course, is something quite the opposite from what many Americans would regard as conservative, small-government, people-empowering politics.

The legislative session that ended last week was a showcase for muscle-flexing hubris of the kind that naturally follows one-party dominance.

The results of last year's Census are worth noting. Utah is now the third fastest growing state and is part of a huge population shift that is rapidly making the West the center of the nation's population.

Couple this with the increase in the state's Hispanic population and it's clear that changes are coming. Outsiders bring their own ideas with them. The days of governing through ideology may be numbered.

Jay Evensen is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com

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