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Bob Bernick Jr.: Initiatives are consequences of slow work on ethics

Published: Friday, Sept. 4 2009 12:03 a.m. MDT

As we move forward in the public debate over two new citizen initiatives, one argument to reject the measures will be that Utahns elect the Legislature, and if you don't like what the Legislature is doing, just vote out your House or Senate member.

And akin to that argument is that Utah shouldn't become like California — mired down in dozens of citizen initiatives on each general election ballot, with the accompanying mess of trying to legislate via huge statewide elections.

Utah could well have two initiatives on its 2010 ballot. One would set up an independent legislative ethics commission to investigate and recommend disciplinary actions to the Legislature for wayward lawmakers.

The other would set up an independent commission to recommend to legislators redistricting maps of congressional, legislative and State School Board districts every 10 years after a census.

Like every republican form of government, we elect good people to the Legislature and ask them to make decisions for us, for we can't vote ourselves on each law or budget that government deals with.

Twenty-six states and one U.S. territory allow citizens to change law and/or their constitutions through a ballot initiative.

The Utah Constitution allows citizens to adopt a new law or change/repeal an existing one, but initiatives can't change the constitution itself.

Opponents of the two citizen initiatives, soon to be out for voter signatures, say there is danger in the initiative process — that Utah could become like some other initiative-crazy states where as many as 70 initiatives have appeared on the ballot in recent years.

But in fact, Utah has not seen a rash of initiatives.

A recent study by the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that in nearly 100 years, only 20 initiatives have been on Utah's ballot. And many of those, like liquor-by-the-drink in the late 1960s and term limits and removing the sales tax from food in the last 20 years, were voted down by citizens.

Over roughly the same time frame, Oregon has seen 349 ballot initiatives and California 331, the NCSL study found.

The idea that a state's citizens could draft and pass laws themselves via petition and initiative — thus bypassing the legislative body — came into popularity in the late 1890s and early 20th century. Utah's initiative law has been changed several times, including recently when legislators decided to make the petition-gathering process more difficult.

Initiative supporters now must gather registered voters' signatures equal to 10 percent of the number of votes in the last gubernatorial election. And that 10 percent threshold also must be met in 26 of the 29 state Senate districts — the idea being that support for such an action must be widespread across the state.

Some states have a much lower bar. In Colorado, for example, only 5 percent of voter signatures are needed to get a measure on the ballot.

To get their ethics and redistricting initiatives on Utah's 2010 ballot, supporters must gather on each position nearly 95,000 valid signatures. Even though Colorado has a much larger population than Utah, for 2010 the initiative threshold is only 76,000 signatures there.

Since 1910, Colorado has seen 208 ballot initiatives, the NCSL study shows.

So, is Utah to be compared to the initiative "problems" of California, Oregon, or even Colorado?

Clearly not.

Is it wise to even allow citizens to have an initiative process where they can bypass the Legislature and make their own law?

In my view, yes.

The whole idea behind initiatives, of course, is to give everyday citizens a route around an intransigent Legislature that just won't do what most citizens want — a route that is short of trying to defeat a majority of legislators at the next election.

While the Utah Legislature in its 2009 session did move forward on ethics reform, as usual, it didn't go far enough. And now legislators face the political consequences of their timidity — citizen initiatives.

If lawmakers are politically smart, they'd get in front of both initiatives now by introducing similar bills (perhaps taking out the more objectionable parts they hate) and pass them in January's 2010 session. Then they could argue the initiatives are unneeded, even dangerous.

This is a chance for GOP legislative leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert to really step forward on ethics. We'll see what they do.

Deseret News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@desnews.com.

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