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News Blog

More power to more powerful people

by Jesse Fruhwirth
- Posted // 2010-03-29 -

Utahns for Ethical Government are spittin' mad at the Legislature for trying to undercut the citizens initiative process just as two popular initiatives designed to limit the power of the Legislature seemed poised to make it onto the ballot.

Ballot initiatives in Utah work this way: organizers must obtain the signatures of 10 percent of voters in 26 out of Utah's 29 Senate districts. The total number of signatures needed changes depending on how many people voted in the last governor's election. In 2008, there were 971,185 ballots cast in Utah. It's quite time-consuming and expensive to get something on the ballot as a citizen--only 20 initiatives have succeeded in getting on the ballot since Utah's founding. The most recent ballot initiative overturned the Legislature's insane creation of school vouchers, which was insane precisely because it was so obviously unpopular among the people, who overturned the vouchers law the first chance they could. Nearly two-thirds of Utahns rejected that glorious plan to funnel public education money into private organizations.

Cynics will tell you that ballot initiative is the only way to wrestle power from an unethical and power-hungry legislature that wants power to lawmakers, now power to the people. Currently, though, only 24 states have any form of ballot initiative or referendum process.

It's certainly no coincidence that this year two initiatives seek to permanently limit the power of the legislature. One initiative seeks to impose new ethical rules of legislators; the other stops them from repeating their 2000 performance of gerrymandering the state into ridiculous voting districts that, for example, stretch from Tooele to Hanksville, that limit the influence of voters, in many cases liberal voters.

At today's press conference, Utahns for Ethical Government's Kim Burningham, a former Republican Legislator from Bountiful, accused the Legislature of changing the rules mid-game. Before the 2010 session, both proponents and opponents of a ballot initiative had the same deadline both for gathering signatures and also convincing signors to take their names off the petition. Those wily legislators, always creative, decided that opponents of ballot initiatives would get an extra 30 days to get names removed from the petition while supporters of the petitions just watch.

Burningham and others complain that Utah's ballot initiative process was so difficult already--remember only 20 have succeeded in more than a century--that the new rules will almost completely eliminate Utah citizens' ability to directly implement law.

Does that sound fair? The Governor either thinks so or doesn't care, since he signed SB 275 this morning.

The supporters of the ballot initiatives are calling for Gov. Gary Herbert to veto HB 112. In the event that a ballot initiative is approved by voters but some citizens want to challenge the legality of the process, HB 112 would allow the Utah Supreme Court to settle disputes without any time limit. Cricitis say the court could simply never rule on the challenged, effectively vetoing the will of the people though non-action.

For now, supporters of both the ethics and fair-boundaries initiatives have declined to report on their progress in any detail. Burningham says that if they announce now the districts where they have enough signatures that opponents will begin immediately targeting those districts to ask people to remove their names. Supporters have fewer than three weeks left to get the necessary signatures, then begin the 30 days where opponents get to chip away at the total. If the supporters have the required number of signatures in 26 districts minus just one signature in just one district,then the whole thing fails.

Burningham says lawsuits may result, but for now, they're just trying to play by the new rules and win despite the moving goal post. If that fails, they'll consider litigation.

(for those paying close attention: My live stream of the press conference didn't work, so I removed that page that had the player in it. I think the Capitol's router probably needs to open a port or something. Ustream works all right with the T-Mobile network--notorious for being slow--but the audio/video don't match well and it lags a lot, that's why I was trying to use the Capitol's wife. We'll experiment with live broadcast again in the future, hopefully for something more fun than a Capitol press conference).follow_jesse.jpg

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