It looks as if Merrill Cook and his Independent Party of Utah will be able to start their term limitation petition drive without a court fight.
Cook formally gave his petition to the lieutenant governor's office last week. And Lt. Gov. Val Oveson immediately asked Attorney General Paul Van Dam if a constitutional amendment is needed to place term limits on state officials, or if a citizen-sponsored initiative petition can send a statute directly to voters for adoption."It appears our advice will be that the lieutenant governor can receive the petition," Van Dam said Friday, but he added that he prefers that the matter ultimately be resolved in court. The attorney general said he is "fairly close to wrapping up" the opinion.
Cook pledges a court fight if Oveson or Van Dam refuse his petition application.
Under Utah law, anyone can gather the required signatures of registered voters and place a proposed law, or statute, before voters in a general election.
But the state Constitution can only be changed by the Legislature passing by two-thirds vote the change and then voters adopting the change in a general election. The state Constitution can't be amended solely through citizen-initiative petition.
Thus, if a court rules it takes a constitutional amendment to impose term limitations, Cook is all but defeated. It's very unlikely the Utah Legislature will itself adopt any term limitation amendment by a two-thirds vote, especially one sponsored by former Republican Cook.
However, a January poll conducted for the Deseret News and KSL-TV shows that Utahns favor term limitation for legislators - 74 percent in favor and only 19 percent opposed.
Constitutional Revision Commission members also discussed term limitation Friday. Rep. Bill Wright, R-Elberta, pushed a term limitation amendment in the 1991 Legislature. It went nowhere, dying without debate in the House Rules Committee.
Said Rep. Ted Lewis, D-Salt Lake, "I'm not sure I'm ready for this (term limitation). The voter should have the right to choose (to keep incumbents in office longer). I'm unwilling to do anything to stop that right."
"You're giving mixed signals," countered Wright. "Either through initiative petition or constitutional amendment referendum, the voters will have the right to choose whether they want term limitations or not. Are you saying voters aren't smart enough to make that decision, but they are smart enough to vote for an incumbent legislator?"
The commission took no action and members indicated they probably won't take any action on Wright's proposal.