This is the week we learn whether the populist movement of a century ago still has legs in Utah, or whether it continues to hop around in the desert sand looking for traction.

More to the point, we will learn whether Utah lawmakers have finally set the bar high enough against citizen initiatives so as to render them virtually useless.

Two initiatives — one to establish a tough new ethics law on legislators, controlling everything from campaign spending to the influence of lobbyists; and the other to set up an independent commission to redraw the state's political districts — have until Thursday to gather and turn in about 95,000 signatures each.

While we're on the subject of high bars, those signatures have to be equal to at least 10 percent of the voters in the last gubernatorial election in 26 of the state's 29 senate districts.

And that bar inched up a bit recently when the governor signed a bill allowing people to easily remove their names from petitions.

Yes, it's a big week, but perhaps not one for definitive answers. We still have a legal fight ahead over the use of electronic signatures.

If you think this is the first time Utahns have engaged in this tug-of-war, you don't know history.

Officially, this was the second state in the nation to adopt the power of citizen initiatives and referenda. It did so back in 1900, just two years after South Dakota became the first state to do so, and just nine years after Switzerland inspired the movement by adopting one of its own.

But it never really got the spirit of the thing. As the Web site notes, Utah's effort was led by Sherman S. Smith, a legislator from Ogden who considered himself a populist, a rare breed in Utah's official circles then and now.

The public voted overwhelmingly to adopt his idea, but then it was up to the Legislature to pass a law to implement it, setting out the rules by which initiatives and referenda could succeed.

Not surprisingly, the Legislature dragged its feet — for 16 long years. And when it finally did pass a law, it made the whole thing useless. Anyone signing a petition had to do so in the office of, and in the presence of, someone authorized to administer oaths. Forget about setting up tables in front of grocery stores. Go find a judge and make an appointment.

If you think today's bar is high, that one was like jumping over Delicate Arch. Not surprisingly, no one succeeded in passing a ballot initiative in Utah until 1961, after the law was relaxed a bit.

At that point, you had to gather signatures equal to at least 10 percent of the people who voted in the last election for governor, and they had to be spread over more than half the state's counties. And so voters finally broke through with a law that required sheriff's deputies to be hired through a merit system, and not through political favors.

Here's a fun fact: That petition drive originally came in 4,500 signatures short, according to a story in this newspaper in 1961. But the secretary of state granted organizers an extra 50 days to gather more names, relying on a state Supreme Court decision in 1938 that said the law should be "liberally interpreted in favor of the public."

Don't expect that kind of leniency this time. This ain't 1961, and we're not just talking about sheriff's deputies. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have told me they could not continue in office if the ethics initiative becomes law.

I have mixed feelings about initiatives. The nation's founders clearly didn't like the idea of direct democracy, and for good reason. But these are attractive mechanisms for forcing lawmakers to follow the will of the people.

But of the only 24 states and the District of Columbia that allow initiatives, Utah always has been a grudging, reluctant member. This week we might learn whether that could change just a little.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News edito?rial page. E-mail: [email protected]. Visit his blog at