SALT LAKE CITY — There could be yet another 2018 ballot initiative circulating soon, as supporters ready a plan to put drawing legislative and congressional boundaries in the hands of an independent commission.
Utahns for Responsive Government has registered with the state to support the Better Boundaries ballot proposition and is soliciting help to gather voter signatures for a place on next year's general election ballot.
But the group, whose leaders include former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, has yet to publicly announce the initiative petition drive.
"I strongly believe that the redistricting process (the determination of political boundaries), badly needs to be improved, and that politicians should not be choosing their voters," Becker said. "For more detail, I'd like to wait until the proposal is further refined."
Becker, a Democrat, is serving as co-chairman of Better Boundaries with Jeff Wright, a Republican who headed up fundraising for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s 2012 presidential campaign.
In a joint statement released by Utahns for Responsive Government treasurer Andrew Roberts, Becker and Wright said "voters across the spectrum agree that the people should choose their politicians, and not the other way around.
"Our communities will be best served when legislative and congressional districts are drawn by a neutral commission, rather than by people who will campaign in those districts," they said.
"Republicans and Democrats who support better boundaries have come together to pursue that goal, and we are working diligently to design a process that will meet the needs of Utah voters," the joint statement concluded.
Roberts had no further comment about the redistricting initiative.
Utah lawmakers have control over setting boundaries for legislative and congressional districts, a process that takes place every 10 years after the national census is complete.
Republicans hold all of Utah's six seats in Congress, as well as supermajorities in both the state House and Senate, suggesting the state is one of the nation's more prominent examples of gerrymandering.
The term refers to drawing districts for elected offices in a way that ensures one political party has the advantage in as many races as possible, while limiting the opposition's ability to win in as few races as possible.
Utah gained a fourth congressional district in the 2010 Census thanks to a population increase, and lawmakers in 2011 split the state's Democratic stronghold, Salt Lake County, between three congressional districts.
The last Democratic member of Utah's congressional delegation, Jim Matheson, narrowly won a seventh term in the new 4th District in 2012 but did not seek re-election in 2014.
Lawmakers have shown little interest in an independent redistricting process.
A bill that would have created an advisory group to oversee redistricting in 2021, sponsored by Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, failed in the 2016 Legislature and never even got a hearing when it was reintroduced this year.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said a redistricting initiative would appeal to voters.
"Voters see that as something that will make the political process fair, and they're generally in favor of those types of things," Burbank said. "It's a fairly easy thing to sell."
What could complicate support are the other initiatives already underway.
Our Schools Now is attempting to increase the state income tax rate from 5 percent to 5.5 percent and the state sales tax rate from 4.7 percent to 5.2 percent by 2021 to raise some $700 million for schools.
Backers of the education initiative have submitted their proposal to the lieutenant governor's office for review and will soon hold the public hearings required before petitions can be circulated.
And the Utah Patients Coalition just announced a drive to get an initiative on the 2018 ballot to legalize medical marijuana use modeled after a bill that failed in the 2016 Legislature.
To qualify for next year's general election ballot, supporters will need to gather the signatures of more than 113,000 Utah voters in at least 26 of the 29 state Senate districts by April 15, 2018.
Burbank said voters could just decide, "'There are a whole bunch of initiatives here. They're all confusing. I'm going to vote against all of them.' I could absolutely see that playing out."
But he said the message behind the redistricting initiative could be strong enough to convince voters unsure of raising their own taxes or legalizing medical marijuana that political reform "looks safe enough."15 comments on this story
Plus, Burbank said, more initiatives on the ballot could dilute opposition to redistricting because the focus is more likely to be on the other, more controversial issues.
"For politicians, this matters a huge amount. For voters, it matters less," he said, so having an independent group at least advising the politicians involved in the redistricting process will make sense to voters.
"Everybody can understand that," Burbank said. "If it's on the ballot, I think it has a reasonable chance of passing."