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4 constitutional amendments on this year's Utah ballot

Published: Sunday, Oct. 31 2010 1:23 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Voters heading to the polls Tuesday will be asked to consider four constitutional amendments and, depending on where they live, also weigh various propositions involving tax increases and other ballot issues and questions from local governments.

The issues range from counties seeking additional funds for new construction of various facilities to changes in government, to approval of a new township or library system and expanding recreational centers.

While individual ballots may already seem long due to changes that put every municipal justice court judge up for retention votes this year, Utah's Director of Elections Mark Thomas said it is all important enough to consider well before Election Day.

"Any time you're talking about changing our state constitution, that's a big deal," he said. "Taking the time to read up on the issues and ask questions where you don't understand is very important."

With the number of issues on the ballot this year, Thomas encourages voters to visit www.vote.utah.gov or study the Voter Information Pamphlet that has been sent to households where registered voters live. Still, he said, generally the same voters turn out every year, regardless of the issues at hand, and he'd like to see that change — especially in a year when results might lead to tax increases.

"Constitutional Amendment A" modifies the scope of the secret ballot requirement, saying that all elections, including those for employee representation and within businesses or union presidencies, shall be by secret ballot. Current provisions state similar requirements, but they may be unclear, according to the information pamphlet approved by Utah's Constitutional Revision Commission.

Proponents of amendment A, including Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, and Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, have argued that the secret ballot method ensures that voting choices are confidential, keeping individuals free from discrimination and debate.

However, opponents say that the amendment is "a misguided and cynical attempt to nullify a legislative proposal pending in Congress that seeks to modernize and reform one aspect of our labor laws," writes Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, and Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City. "You are being asked to forever close the door on the democratic right of employees to collect signatures as a means of organizing and choosing a representative to be their voice in negotiations with their employer."

Amendment B specifies residency requirements for a person appointed to fill a vacancy in the offices of state senator or representative. It also cancels a person's appointment to those offices if the person moves outside of the district it serves. The amendment is being called a "common sense clarification" to existing law.

The third constitutional amendment, "Amendment C," provides a property-tax exemption for certain property owned by nonprofit entities if the property is used to irrigate land, provide domestic water or provide water to a public water supplier, according to an impartial analysis written by the CRC. If approved, Amendment C would reduce the property-tax liability of certain water-providing nonprofit entities by an estimated cumulative amount of $400,000 per year. It won't necessarily decrease local government revenue because the $400,000 tax burden will shift from the nonprofit entities to other taxpayers.

Constitutional Amendment D would establish a five-member legislative ethics commission, not including sitting legislators or registered lobbyists, to conduct independent reviews of complaints alleging unethical legislative behavior, including "disorderly conduct," which is specified but not defined in the current constitution. The Utah Constitution also authorizes the House and Senate, with a two-thirds vote, to expel a member for cause, but the process is not clearly defined.

Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, believes Amendment D and the "independent commission" it creates, "will do very little to stop the truly ambitious and evil among us." He said the public's vote should be what regulates who serves in a public office.

"Ever-tightening ethics regulations will set up a convoluted system in which groups who fail at the ballot box can promote their political agendas under the guise of ethics complaints," he wrote in an argument against the amendment. "Your elected representatives could have their reputations destroyed on technicalities that are not morally wrong."

But proponents of D say that voters should be able to have a reasonable expectation that legislators will act honorably, ethical breaches dealt with appropriately and citizens be fully informed of credible accusations of wrongdoing.

Bob Rees, associate general counsel for the state's Constitutional Revision Commission, said that before an amendment to the constitution ends up on the ballot, it is vetted by the group to ensure it is written in the proper language and avoids any unforeseen consequences. By the time voters make their choice, each item has been pushed through committee hearings, received legislative input and been passed out of the House and the Senate with a two-thirds majority vote.

Also up to voters is the decision in many communities to change the form of government or add or upgrade existing public facilities, such as completing construction of the new Utah Museum of Natural History, located in the Research Park area of Salt Lake City; a new police station in Kaysville; new aquatic centers in Eagle Mountain and Duchesne; a recreation center in Provo; school facilities in Beaver and Daggett counties; and parks, trails and open space in West Valley City and Summit County. Cache County asks voters whether a new library system is either necessary or wanted, while Hooper, in Weber County, looks to voters on whether to move to a six-member council form of government; and residents in a portion of Salt Lake County will vote on whether to create the Granite Township.

"While they don't all mean day-to-day changes, they're all important things to consider," Thomas said.

e-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

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