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Utah Legislators Debate Citizen Initiative Processes During General Session

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The passage of three ballot initiatives last November brought political engagement by citizens to the forefront of a statewide conversation. Now, Utah legislators have proposed amendments to that process. KPCW’s Emily Means has more.

This legislative session, there are five bills pertaining to initiative and referenda processes, and Rep. Brad Daw, a Republican from Orem, has two of them.

House Bill 119 addresses what Daw says are inconsistencies in local initiative and referendum codes. The 64-page bill has nearly 2000 lines, featuring language on petition signature requirements and educating voters on arguments for and against a referendum or initiative. Daw says this bill is a carry-over from last year’s session and was a collaborative effort with the Utah League of Cities and Towns.

"We actually put together a task force with the League of Cities and Towns and other stakeholders, and said, 'OK, let’s just go through, rip out the code by the roots, examine it thoroughly and then put it back together in a way that’s a lot more cogent and a lot more understandable,'" Daw said. "There was no attempt or no intent to tilt the scales one way or the other towards either the cities or those running the initiative. The real intent here was to clarify it, make it understandable and make it so everybody knew what was going on."

Wasatch County Taxpayers Association Chair Tracy Taylor takes issue with code relating to local referenda in HB 119. She says Wasatch County citizens have attempted to put referenda on the ballot in the past, and the signature requirements and deadline made it difficult to do so.  

“There are sections of the code that talk about how big a county or city is and what percentage of the active voters of the last presidential election, and that’s how they determine the amount of signatures you would need," Taylor said. "Those percentages have been going up, not down. Also, our community is growing so quickly, so just by the sheer growth of our county, those numbers are going up—plus, they are increasing the percentages of the rate of signatures that you need to get. So, even though it’s a Utah constitutional right for the citizens to do a referendum petition, we’re concerned that the Legislature is making it more and more difficult for the citizens to be able to exercise their constitutional right.”

Daw’s other bill, HB133, would set the start dates of initiatives back to 60 days after the end of the general legislative session, giving legislators more time to discuss and amend initiatives. Currently, the effective dates of initiatives vary, with some beginning soon after all statewide votes are verified and others with specific dates written into the initiative, such as Prop 3’s designated April 1 start date. Daw says legislation like this would have helped with Prop 2, which was replaced during a contentious special session less than a month after the initiative passed.

"The day that Prop 2 became the law of the land, or the law of the state, is the same day it became legal for every single citizen in the state to possess unlimited amounts of marijuana, no matter where they purchased it from," Daw said. "Now, I can’t imagine that anybody really wanted that to happen, but because of the way it’s worded, it’s what happened. We had to come back in and say, 'that’s not really what they meant, but that’s what the letter of the law says, so we need to fix that immediately.'"

Both of Daw’s bills have yet to be heard at committee.

Emily Means hadn’t intended to be a journalist, but after two years of studying chemistry at the University of Utah, she found her fit in the school’s communication program. Diving headfirst into student media opportunities, Means worked as a host, producer and programming director for K-UTE Radio as well as a news writer and copy editor at The Daily Utah Chronicle.