The issue is not whether Utah's hunting or fishing laws should be changed. It's whether the process by which those laws can be changed should be changed.
It's like arguing about how to argue before an argument begins.Still, the passions on either side of Proposition 5 have turned the proposed amendment to the Utah Constitution into one of the most intensely debated and heavily financed issues of the fall campaign.
Proposition 5 would require a two-thirds majority vote for the successful passage of any future ballot initiative seeking a change in when, how or how much wildlife is taken in Utah.
Proponents say Proposition 5 would protect the state's current hunting and fishing practices from attack by out-of-state animal rights "extremists."
Opponents say that to require a two-thirds majority for the passage of any ballot initiative is an affront to democracy and would remove power from one group and give it to another.
The emotional climate surrounding Proposition 5 was evident Thursday at the University of Utah, where the two sides squared off in a lunchtime debate hosted by the Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Students and others in the audience were decidedly against Proposition 5 and took out their frustrations on Proposition 5 advocate Don Peay. The finance chairman of Utahns for Wildlife Heritage and Conservation was peppered with pointed questions by audience members, who collectively labeled him as an anti-Democratic extremist.
Peay also put up with some spirited remarks from Craig Axford, Peay's sparring partner for the hourlong debate. Axford is campaign coordinator for the Utah Voting Rights Coalition, formed to defeat Proposition 5. But Peay was skilled at dishing it out, too.
Peay said Utahns are happy with the way wildlife has been managed in Utah and don't want outside interests trying to change that. State wildlife managers have done a good job of increasing the Utah populations of moose, elk, cougars and bighorn sheep, he said.
"Proposition 5 is a chance for Utah voters to determine if they want to keep the system that has served Utah well for 75 years," Peay said.
But Axford said that same wildlife management strategy has led to the elimination or near-elimination of other animal species from Utah.
Peay said Proposition 5 supporters are concerned that non-Utahns will mount successful efforts to curtail current hunting practices in Utah as they have elsewhere.
"A vote for Proposition 5 clearly makes it more difficult for Washington D.C. extremists groups to try to come in and manipulate Utah's system as they've done in six Western states," Peay said.
"They want access to the initiative system to try to force their agenda . . . upon Utah wildlife. In California, it's been a disaster."
Peay and Axford accused each other of having their campaigns paid for by outside interests.
Peay said pro-Proposition 5 forces have raised $500,000 but said $100,000 that appears to have come from an out-of-state hunting organization actually came from the pockets of Utahns who are members of that group.
Axford said his coalition has raised $28,000 to fight Proposition 5 and that just over a quarter of that money has come from outside Utah.
Peay, however, insisted it's "the people from out of state who want to make it easier" to change Utah's wildlife laws.
"They don't want to make it easier," Axford responded. "They just want to keep it the way it is."
Axford said he is aware that there are animal-rights extremists who hold views that many Utahns would find distasteful. But, he said, those people have the same rights as others and their votes should be counted equally.
"As proponents' literature points out, the whole point (of Proposition 5) is to keep certain groups from exercising their constitutional rights to put something on the ballot and letting the people decide," Axford said. "And that's inherently wrong and, more than that, it's dangerous.
"This is a very undemocratic, unprecedented amendment."
Peay described supporters of Proposition 5 as church-going, blue-blooded, patriotic Americans. Axford took that to suggest that opponents of Proposition 5 are not.
"We're blue-blooded," he told Peay. "I know I'm committed to my church and state, too."