Legacy Images - stock.adobe.com
Skyline of Salt Lake City Utah with the Utah State Capitol Building and the historic Mormon Temple

SALT LAKE CITY — Is Utah becoming California?

I don’t just mean in the sense that January this year feels more conducive to sunbathing than snowballs. I’m talking about how laws are made.

When you enter the voting booth this November (or sit at your kitchen table filling out your mail-in ballot), you may be faced with five ballot initiatives — a chance for you to make laws directly without having to worry about elected representatives, senators and the governor.

Isn’t this the kind of California-esque mess our mothers warned us against?

Well, if not our mothers, then surely state lawmakers, who have tried their hardest to make it as difficult as possible to get an initiative on the ballot (short of outlawing the idea altogether, as is the case in 24 states).

Over the last 20 years, Californians have faced an average of 18 such measures on ballots every even-numbered year, with 28 of them in one year, according to ballotpedia.org. People like to complain that lawmakers don’t take the time to study every bill before voting, but California voters face an almost impossible homework challenge every two years, all while having to hold down a day job.

And if that’s not hard enough, sometimes those measures contradict each other. Last year, voters faced one initiative that would have removed legal barriers to the death penalty, and another that would have ended the death penalty completely. Faced with the possibility both might pass, the state decided the one with the most yes votes would end up in law. Fortunately for everyone but attorneys, in the end, only the one making the death penalty quicker passed.

Compared to that, five measures ought to be easy for Utahns, except that they’re all weighty matters.

One would narrowly legalize marijuana use for medical purposes. The others would raise taxes to dramatically increase school funding, set up an independent board to redraw the state’s political boundaries every 10 years, raise taxes to fully fund the expansion of Medicaid, and make it easier for candidates to get their names on primary election ballots through petitions.

The five are not guaranteed to make it on the ballot. By law, organizers must collect signatures equaling 10 percent of the voters in the 2016 general election in 26 of the state’s 29 Senate districts. That’s a tall order, especially in the state’s more rural districts.

It’s also a good thing.

I know that sounds like democratic heresy, particularly in the West, home to the overwhelming majority of initiative-friendly states.

In truth, I have mixed feelings.

Lawmaking is best when it is exposed to a public process that requires compromises and amendments. When a lawmaker proposes a bill, committees hear it and the public gets to respond. Other lawmakers can try to amend it to reflect the interests of their constituents or in the name of plain old common sense. They can argue points and respond to critics. All that friction chips away a bill’s rougher edges. Initiatives, however, reflect the will of an interest group and must be voted up or down, without any amendments, although Utah law does require public hearings. But here’s the complicating part. If lawmakers continually refuse to respond to the public will on a certain matter, the initiative process can act as a safety valve. While I won’t give my opinion on the pending initiatives, at least not right now, it’s safe to say each has been heard and rejected by the people’s representatives.

It’s also safe to say each one, if it looks like it might gather enough signatures, could spur lawmakers to action in an effort to head off a vote. Often this means passing a compromise measure. That doesn’t always end well, especially if the compromise later falls apart.

Democracy, even the indirect kind in a republic, is messy. Both lawmakers and the public (through advertising) can be swayed by special interests.

41 comments on this story

Utah’s history with initiatives is just as messy. An unpopular representative (among his colleagues, anyway) got the idea onto ballots in 1900, where it passed overwhelmingly. Ever since then, the Legislature has tried to make it as hard to accomplish as the courts will allow.

California took an opposite path, making it a poster child for direct democracy run amok.

If all five Utah measures get on the ballot this year and pass, lawmakers might be tempted to tighten the screws again to keep us as far from the Golden State as possible.