Get ready for another Merrill Cook initiative petition. But this one, aimed for the ballot in 1992 or 1994, may have a good chance of passing.

For Cook wants to limit the terms of governor, other statewide elected officials, legislators and county officials, including commissioners, to eight consecutive years.He also wants to limit the terms of U.S. senators and representatives from Utah to 12 years.

Cook and his Independent Party of Utah tried to remove the sales tax from food in the 1990 election. But that effort failed.

Cook, running for governor as an independent in 1988, also hooked up with tax protesters, both trying to roll back large tax increases imposed in 1987. But that effort, too, failed at the polls.

This initiative may be different, however. Polls show a general interest in limiting the terms of public officials. Since Cook isn't trying to cut taxes (and thus leave himself open to opponents' criticism that he's harming state, county or school programs), a term-limitation initiative may have a better chance of passage at the polls.

Utah lawmakers haven't looked favorably on such a limitation, no doubt in part because it applies to them.

Rep. Bill Wright, R-Elberta, attempted a state constitutional amendment in the 1991 Legislature that would limit terms. Rep. Kelly Atkinson, D-West Jordan, had a similar term-limitation amendment. Both attempts died in the House Rules Committee, never even being debated by lawmakers.

Wright and Atkinson opted for a constitutional change, even though it takes a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, because the Legislative General Counsel opined that limiting terms required a constitutional change.

Lt. Gov. Val Oveson, who oversees the citizen initiative process, has asked Attorney General Paul Van Dam if term limitation requires a constitutional change, or if it can be achieved through changing state law - which the initiative petition achieves.

One cannot change the Utah Constitution through the initiative process. Only the Legislature can recommend a constitutional amendment, which is then either approved or rejected by voters.

Thus, the legality of Cook's initiative petition may end up in court if Van Dam opines against him. That opinion will be forthcoming soon, said Deputy Lt. Gov. Dave Hansen.

But, Hansen said, "indications from the AG's office are that you probably can limit terms of state and county officers through statute - that it doesn't take a constitutional amendment."

Oveson didn't ask Van Dam his opinion of limiting congressional terms to 12 years. The general feeling is state law can't limit the terms of federal officials, although Colorado residents in the 1990 election did adopt a state law limiting the terms of their federal officeholders.

Cook's petition said if Utah courts rule that term limitations on federal candidates are unconstitutional, term limitations on state and county officials still stand.

Cook will take his term-limitation proposal to his Independent Party's central committee next week. Most likely the committee will adopt it. Then comes the hard work of collecting about 65,000 signatures from valid registered Utah voters statewide.

Cook said he leans toward placing the initiative on the 1994 ballot. Since the initiative doesn't allow anyone to be grandfathered in, all current officeholders would be held to eight or 12 years in office when the new law takes effect. "If we pass this in 1992, it ends Sen. Orrin Hatch's career right there. He couldn't run for re-election in 1994 (when his term is up). We don't want this to be a referendum on any current officeholder. (Assuming the initiative passed in 1994 and took effect in 1995), "If Hatch won in 1994, he could serve another six years before he'd have to leave," said Cook.


(Additional information)

Days numbered?

Cook's petition would impose these limits:

8 years

- Governor, lieutenant governor, auditor, treasurer

- Utah House or Senate member

- County commissioners, attorneys, sheriffs and other county officers

12 years

- U.S. senators and representatives from Utah