Get ready for GOP legislative leaders to take on the state's referendum law — and a big fight with Democrats who vow to protect the current system.

In November 2007, Utahns soundly rejected the GOP Legislature's private school voucher law in a voter referendum, 61-39 percent. It was a real rejection of conservative GOP lawmakers' stand (no Democrat voted for vouchers). Some GOP House and Senate incumbents who voted for vouchers (especially in Salt Lake County) are facing this year constituents who voted 2-to-1 against vouchers.

As GOP lawmakers may look to making the referendum law more restrictive, the first plank of the state Democratic Party's platform, titled "Good Government," calls for "the people (to have) recourse through constitutionally established means of the courts, initiatives and referendums, and through freedom of expression."

And Democratic leaders have complained that Republicans, in control of governorship for 25 years, in control of the Legislature for 30 years, have become arrogant in power.

Monday, Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, told the Deseret News editorial board that government doesn't work best when elected representatives are constantly, and frivolously, overruled by the citizens they are elected to make decisions for. In other words, the pure democracy of initiatives and referendums doesn't work well compared to the republican form of government of elected representatives.

"If you look at those states where referendums and initiatives are very easy to put on a ballot, you simply can't govern effectively by a pure democracy," Bramble said. "Every pure democracy in the history of mankind has failed in a very short period of time. The wisdom of a representative democracy is that there is some insulation between that populace, and that doesn't mean the voice of the people isn't important. That doesn't mean we don't listen to our constituents."

In a representative government, elected lawmakers can "debate on complex issues dealing with policy, funding, social issues, whatever." A democratic up or down vote based on popular opinion is not the smartest way to go, Bramble said.

Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said it shouldn't be easy to put an initiative or referendum on the ballot.

"If there is enough of a groundswell to say, 'We want to challenge what the Legislature did,' you can do it," Valentine said. "It's not impossible, nor is it very easy. It is a chore, and it should be a chore."

Over the past decade or so, the Legislature has changed Utah's citizen initiative process — basically making it more difficult for unhappy citizens to gather the required signatures of voters needed to get an initiative on the ballot.

The Utah Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers didn't violate the Constitution when they required a certain percent of signatures coming from a set number of Senate districts, instead of the old requirement which allowed more signatures from more populous counties. However, in that decision, the justices warned that legislators had to be careful about making it substantially harder for citizens to redress concerns ignored by the Legislature.

Some GOP leaders have already complained that when the Legislature changed the initiative law, it also failed to change the referendum law in the same manner.

Thus, a year ago those against vouchers (mostly professional educators and public school supporters) were able to more easily collect signatures on their anti-voucher law referendum than would be possible under current initiative law.

(Initiatives adopt new laws or amend existing laws. Referendums are just an up or down citizen vote on a law that is already passed, keeping or repealing it.)

Thus, some anti-voucher advocates worried last year that Utah legislators, angry over their voucher defeat, may try to change the referendum law like they have already done for the initiative law.

The referendum process is so hard that Utah Democratic Party leaders were stunned voucher opponents were able to secure enough signatures in time to make the ballot.

"What they performed is nothing less than a miracle," said Todd Taylor, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party.

"The referendum process is far too difficult in the state of Utah. It's the arrogance of power — they think it should all reside in the Legislature."


E-mail: ldethman@desnews.com; bbjr@desnews.com