SALT LAKE CITY – Former Utah congressman and frequent candidate Merrill Cook said Wednesday he's starting yet another initiative petition drive, this time a county-by-county effort to stop Utah's recently passed guest worker program.
Cook, who headed up various unsuccessful initiative petition drives over the years that were mostly aimed at lowering taxes, said a new group expects to present its proposal to Salt Lake County next week.
"It's our best shot at putting a dagger in the program," Cook said, referring to HB116, the guest worker bill passed by the 2011 Legislature despite strong opposition from many conservatives.
A separate effort is already under way to put a bill before lawmakers in special session that would punish employers who hire illegal immigrants by first suspending, then revoking, their business and other licenses.
Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, said last week he wants the state to quickly pass the bill, modeled after Arizona legislation recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, to discourage illegal immigrants from coming to Utah to work.
While the details of the initiative are still being worked out, Cook said the new group, tentatively named Families for the Prevention of Unlawful Employment Practices, has similar goals.
Still, Cook said they're not going to wait to see if Sandstrom's effort is successful. He said the group plans to ask Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen to certify the petition for circulation next week. Other counties and even some municipalities, Cook said, will likely see similar requests soon.
Swensen, who's been in office more than two decades, said it's rare for an initiative petition drive limited to the county rather than being statewide. What appears to be the most recent effort, in 1997, was an attempt to stop TRAX.
"County by county, trying to establish something that will basically effect the state — that's kind of an interesting concept," Swensen said. "The attorneys would have to review the legal aspects of it and see if it's doable."
As a veteran of a number of unsuccessful statewide initiative petition drives, Cook said the approach will make it easier on organizers to qualify for the 2012 ballot in at least portions of the state.
Statewide petitions now require the signatures of 10 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots in the last presidential election. Plus that same threshold must be met in at least 26 of Utah's 29 senate districts.
"The Legislature has really toughened that up," Cook said.
But initiative backers will only have to collect some 37,000 signatures from Salt Lake County voters before next April 15 to get on the county ballot, he said.
Cook acknowledged that approach could lead to different regulations for businesses depending where in the state they're located but said it's better than doing nothing.
"We want to fight this with whatever tools we have, knowing that patchworks aren't as a good as a unified law," he said. "We're against amnesty."