SALT LAKE CITY — In 2007, Utahns flexed their collective political muscle to emphatically overturn a newly passed state law allowing publicly funded vouchers for students to attend private school.
Since that crushing referendum, state lawmakers have not dared touch the issue again.
And that ballot measure's success energized other groups and individuals in the next several years to launch citizen initiatives on various matters. But all of them over the past decade ultimately fell to the wayside.
In fact, it wasn't until 2018 that a citizens' initiative actually made it on the ballot as a confluence of voter frustration and legislative inaction on brewing issues came to a head.
Initiatives on medical marijuana, Medicaid expansion and creating an independent redistricting commission all qualified for the ballot — the most ever in the state for a single election — and all three passed. Another initiative on Utah's candidate nomination process also qualified for the ballot, but was bumped off after 3,000 petition signers removed their names.
Whether the success ignites another surge in citizen initiatives remains to be seen. But because of the difficulty of getting a measure on the ballot, Utah won't be a California or Oregon where the process is much less onerous and ballots often contain long lists of initiatives.
"I don’t think we're going to be like California where any frivolous issue can get on the ballot. I think we've got a pretty good balance," said LaVarr Webb, UtahPolicy.com publisher.
To qualify for the ballot, an initiative in Utah must have more than 113,000 voter signatures — 10 percent of votes cast for president in the most recent election — that meet specific thresholds in at least 26 of Utah's 29 state Senate districts. Utah has a 30-day period after the petitions are turned in for signers to remove their names if they want to.
In California, initiatives required the signatures of at least 5 percent of all people who voted in the last gubernatorial election.
"It has very little do with a state’s liberal or conservative lean, and everything to do with how easy is it is to qualify," Brigham Young University political science professor Adam Brown said of the ability to get initiatives on the ballot.
Secondary to that, he said, is how insulated a voter-approved law is to legislative interference. In Utah, lawmakers can rewrite a law right after it passes.
There were 63 citizen initiatives on ballots across the country last year, 32 of which passed, according to the Initiatives and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California. The average number in even-year elections since 2008 is 55.
California voters considered six initiatives in 2018 and eight in 2016, along with several citizen-initiated state constitutional amendments. Utah does not allow initiatives for constitutional changes.
The chance to vote on a citizen initiative doesn't come around often in Utah. Of the 12 initiative petitions started since 2007, only three — the ones last year — reached the ballot, according to Ballotpedia, an independent website that tracks ballot initiatives in states.
"It just shows a certain moment in time of how the voters are feeling about their representation in government on certain issues," said Chase Thomas, Alliance for a Better Utah executive director.
Those issues just bubbled over to the point that Utahns wanted a decision, he said.
Derek Monson, Sutherland Institute vice president of policy, suggests there might be something else at play that helped initiative backers collect enough voter signatures to qualify for the ballot last year.
The state law allowing candidates to circulate petitions to get on the primary election ballot gave rise to the hiring of paid signature gatherers in Utah, and that has spilled over to initiatives.
What used to be a huge volunteer effort, Monson said, has become a professional industry.
"That's a dynamic that hasn't existed," he said, adding that he favors the state regulating signature gathering firms. "It kind of lowers the bar."
Now that people know they can get initiatives on the ballot as last year showed, do other people "come out of the woodwork or not?" Monson said.
The three recent initiatives have made an obvious impact on the state, but so have ones that voters didn't get the chace to weigh in on.
Utahns for Ethical Government failed twice a few years ago to get its initiative on the ballot seeking voter approval for an independent ethics commission to oversee the state's elected officials.
To pre-empt the initiative, lawmakers passed their own ethics reform package, including placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot to create an ethics commission, which passed.
Faced with losing the state's longstanding caucus and convention system for nominating candidates to direct primary elections in 2014, the Legislature reached a compromise with the Count My Vote initiative. SB54 maintained the traditional conventions while allowing candidates to collect voter signatures to get on the primary ballot.
"So there is a trend, and that's what it looks like," said Brown, who tracks the Utah Legislature at UtahDataPoints.com. "People who've been involved in these have seen that we can push the Legislature to do things they otherwise would not do, even if we don't actually put it on the ballot."
And the Legislature has the power to push back when an initiative does pass — in mores ways than one.
Utah lawmakers have changed the citizens' initiative process over the years to make it more difficult, especially after a measure passes. They might take a ratchet to it again this year on the heels of the successful medical marijuana, Medicaid expansion and redistricting initiatives.
"It’s simply anti-democratic, not what Utahns want. It is wrong," House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said about such legislative efforts during the Democrats' response to Gov. Gary Herbert's State of the State speech Wednesday.
Several bills have been filed this session to make changes to the initiative and referendum petition process:
• HB88 changes the deadline for requesting the removal of a signature from a petition.
• HB133would delay the effective date of voter-approved laws to 60 days after the Legislature adjourns from general session.
•HB145 requires initiative sponsors to submit signed petitions to county clerks as they collect them and counties to post the names of signers on their websites.
• HB195 bases the percentage of required signatures on the number of "active" voters rather than on the number of voters in the previous presidential election.
More controversial than changing the process, though, is the Republican-controlled Legislature tinkering with or scrapping, at least in part, voter-approved laws.
Legislators replaced the medical marijuana initiative with their own bill a month after it passed. They're now swiftly doing the same with Medicaid expansion, and are poised to pass a bill that would cover fewer Utahns with a lower federal-to-state funding match.
In addition to not tightening the initiative petition process, Democrats argue initiatives should stand as passed.
"The Legislature should never be quick to overrule the will of Utah voters when ballot initiatives pass," King said.
Webb said it isn't inappropriate for lawmakers to make some changes to initiatives.
"I think they should be careful in making wholesale changes that make new laws unrecognizable," he said.73 comments on this story
Monson contends that citizen initiatives shouldn't put legislators in that position to begin with. Shortcomings in the process make it easier for voter-approved laws that "haven't been well-considered" to pass, he said.
He suggested stoking a competition of ideas by giving voters more than an all-or-nothing choice. The timing of signature gathering for ballot initiatives could be adjusted so the Legislature could put an alternative option on the ballot, he said.
Voters, Monson said, could choose the initiative, the Legislature's proposal or neither, leaving the status quo.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly referred to Chase Roberts instead of Chase Thomas.