SALT LAKE CITY — You didn’t really think lawmakers would stop after messing with Proposition 3, did you?
Now it’s time to get at what some of them see as the real problem — the initiative process itself.
The thinking goes like this:
Last November, voters were faced with a ballot measure that asked, right up front, if they would raise the gas tax by 10 cents per gallon to help fund education. It failed miserably.
On the same ballot, voters were faced with Proposition 3, a citizen initiative to fully expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Somewhere in the text of that proposition it said this would authorize a 0.15 percent increase in the sales tax. This passed, and possibly because you, the voter, never noticed it.
In addition, that 0.15 percent tax increase was not enough to fully fund Medicaid expansion, according to legislative fiscal analysts.
“One thing I learned from last November, some of this got lost in the conversation,” Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, told a committee. He, incidentally, was the only Republican in the Senate to vote against the recent changes to Proposition 3. In casual conversations, he said, the people he has spoken to were surprised to learn about the tax increase.
Which brings us to SB151, sponsored by Sen. Deirdre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork.
This bill, which passed the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee unanimously Tuesday afternoon, would require any future citizen initiative to state, right at the top, how much it would cost and how that cost would be funded.
The cost would be calculated by the Legislative Fiscal Analyst’s Office.
It’s hard to argue against this change. Transparency, especially when it comes to tax hikes, ought to be clearly and prominently stated. And it’s only prudent to say how something will be funded.
Whether this was the reason Question 1 (the gas tax hike) failed and Proposition 3 succeeded, however, is not so clear.
The danger is that this narrative might end up changing how lawmakers view what happened.
The gas tax question was complicated and confusing. By last November, a temporary spike in gas prices made the idea of adding 10 more cents per gallon unpleasant, and voters may have had trouble understanding why gas taxes, and not the income tax, was the best way to fund education.
Its failure did not necessarily mean Utahns have no interest in increasing funding for schools.
And while Proposition 3 didn’t put its tax hike front and center, it’s unconvincing to say that would have been a game changer, or that voters’ desire to help the poor did not outweigh any perceived disadvantage to what seemed a modest bump in the sales tax.
It’s important to put all of this in historical context.
Many lawmakers (not all) have a storied history of disliking the little piece of direct democracy known as the citizen initiative process. They view it as the philosophical fast-lane to California, the poster child for endless government-choking ballot initiatives.
Utah was just the second state to allow such a thing, but only because people forced a statewide vote on it in 1900. It took lawmakers another 16 years to pass a law that defined how citizens were supposed to use this new right. And the law they passed required everyone signing a signature to do so in the office of, and the presence of, someone authorized to administer oaths.
Forget about looking for a guy with a clipboard outside your local grocery store. Make an appointment, have a seat and wait for the judge to see you.
Not surprisingly, it took another 44 years and some court decisions before Utahns ever successfully passed an initiative.
Much has changed over the years, but the tug of war continues.
The state constitution makes successful initiatives just as binding a law as if the Legislature had passed it and the governor signed it. The only difference is it never had to go through the amendment process all other legislative bills pass through on their rocky and uncertain path to the lawbooks.37 comments on this story
Understandably, that’s not the best way to make laws. And yet, lawmakers sometimes ignore matters the public thinks ought to deserve attention, and the initiative process gives them some recourse.
Utah’s ballots will never be confused with a California ballot. It’s already too hard to follow all the rules to qualify here, at least without a lot of money.
The bigger question, to many voters, is how to get lawmakers to at least honor the intent of what they pass at the ballot box — something many felt was lacking with the changes to Proposition 3, tax hike or not.