Here's the problem: In Utah, initiatives can be manipulated by paid signature gatherers who represent special interests and who either tell half-truths or conveniently fail to tell the whole truth.
But here's the other problem: State lawmakers sometimes don't pass laws the public wants because they are influenced by big-money contributions from special interests.
Everywhere you turn, it seems, ideal government one driven only by noble ideas, sound philosophies and a collective will runs smack dab into walls, usually built with bricks full of money. That, it turns out, is as inevitable as a fish running into water wherever it turns. The only real antidote is to make sure the public is as educated as possible. That's easier said than done.
In Utah, as in 24 other states, voters can make laws directly, without the help of their elected representatives, through initiatives and referenda. But state lawmakers have been working hard in recent years to make that process as difficult as possible.
Get ready for some more. One bill you're likely to see would require every petition to include, in bold and large letters at the top of the page, information on whether the proposal would raise taxes and/or add to the state's debt burden, and by how much. The idea is that people would be less likely to sign a petition if they knew they were endorsing a tax hike. And the suspicion is that people who gather signatures on petitions aren't currently sharing that information.
I have some experience with this. As I wrote in this column more than two years ago, my wife was approached by a signature-gatherer in the parking lot of a grocery store. Like most such people these days, he was being paid a certain amount for each signature he obtained, which meant he had a special incentive to get her to sign at any cost. This signature-gatherer was so obnoxious and insistent sort of a cross between a carnival barker and a multi-level marketing representative that she finally signed the thing just to get rid of him.
Only later did she learn that he hadn't been completely truthful about the issue he was representing.
The idea is simple. Get the thing on the ballot no matter what it takes. Then fill the airwaves with commercials that persuade people to vote yes on Election Day. Often, initiatives are the work of out-of-state interests and don't represent the "will" of the people of Utah at all. If these become law, they often give an unfair advantage to one party or another. They also often require that taxes be spent in a certain way, tying the hands of lawmakers who are charged with spending tax money based on all the state's needs.
Sure, lawmakers are trying to guard their own turf here. But a bigger philosophical issue is at stake, too.
Lee Hamilton, the director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said it well two years ago in an op-ed piece he wrote for the Indianapolis Star. The Founding Fathers did not believe in direct democracy, he said, because "it threatened a vital process: cooling the passions of the moment, encouraging deliberation and reasoned debate, and protecting the right of the minority to be heard and understood."
Utah lawmakers have tried to make initiatives more representative. In recent years they passed a law that requires the signatures of 10 percent of the number who voted statewide in the last gubernatorial election, broken down to 10 percent of voters in 26 of the state's 29 senate districts, before a petition can qualify for the ballot. They also required a series of public meetings to discuss the merits of the initiative something that is supposed to roughly replicate the public hearings lawmakers hold on most bills they consider.
No law, however, can require a signature-gatherer to tell nothing but the truth and the whole truth. That makes the tax-burden-in-bold-print idea intriguing.
Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected]