Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Why so many ballot measures, and which will win?

A record number of meaningful ballot measures have been proposed for voters to approve or reject in the 2018 election. The proposals would boost taxes for education, create a direct primary election system, allow use of marijuana for medical purposes, create an independent commission to propose election district boundaries and expand Medicaid coverage to more low-income Utahns. These measures raise interesting questions.

Why are so many substantive ballot measures being proposed this election cycle? Should these issues be left to the Legislature?

Pignanelli: “The ballot box is the surest arbiter of disputes.” — James Buchanan 

At neighborhood or community functions in Utah, non-Mormons, like me, are happy to bring alcoholic beverages — when appropriate — to enjoy and share. They want to participate in the social exercise, but understand that “certain dynamics” prevent gracious hosts of the LDS faith from providing high-octane drinks. Such rationale underlies ballot initiatives.

Shrewd activists understand that “political dynamics” prevent the Legislature from raising income taxes, salvaging SB54, establishing a boundary commission, etc. So the desired vibrant and substantive discussion with citizens is pursued through the initiative process.

The visionary drafters of our 1895 state constitution were prescient of such potential and mandated that “Legislative power … shall be vested with the Legislature … and the people.” Thus, lawmakers and petition sponsors who grumble at each other are misguided. The relative success or failure of an initiative sends a valuable signal of where Utahns are on issue, and the Legislature should be grateful for the information, without the pain of a vote. Sponsors of a ballot effort should be happy that they can take the message to the citizens without the filters of elected officials.

Implementing a ballot initiative is a wonderful fulfillment of civic duty.

Webb: Most issues should be decided by the Legislature. It would be a mistake to put every major issue before the voters. It should be an arduous task to get a proposal on the ballot — and it is.

However, select important issues that have had much discussion and debate but have not been resolved in the minds of most voters are legitimate subjects of ballot proposals. Any proposal that can overcome the tough obstacles to get on the ballot deserves to be there.

Given the difficulty of gathering the required number of signatures (more than 100,000) to get on the ballot, which measures are likely to be placed before voters next year?

Pignanelli: After the Legislature changed the signature requirement to 10 percent of voters in 26 Senate districts — a daunting hurdle — no ballot initiative has succeeded. (Remember, Count My Vote reached a compromise with the Legislature, but I surmise that they were going to have problems had they not done so).

If thousands of teachers and PTA activists are well-organized, they could push the tax increase proposal through obstacles to be awarded placement. The other campaigns will not have such an expansive volunteer network and will have to procure enormous resources to hire the expensive signature gatherers. Readers should not be surprised if all ballot campaigns struggle with these challenges.

Webb: Getting on the ballot requires an enormous amount of hard work, strong public support and a significant amount of money. My guess is that the direct primary election proposal by Count My Vote, the education tax proposal by Our Schools Now and the Medicaid expansion proposal will all get on the ballot. Medical marijuana and the redistricting commission proposals are popular but will need outside money from national groups to gather sufficient signatures.

Which measures are likely to win voter approval and become law?

Pignanelli: The education initiative will need clever messaging because Utahns are unlikely to pass tax increases — even for education. Because many families have relatives or friends touched by a horrible disease that is alleviated by marijuana, they may have enough goodwill in the general election.

Webb: Voters will readily approve the Count My Vote/direct primary proposal. Medicaid expansion has the firepower to pull out a win. I absolutely want Our Schools Now to win because a substantial investment is badly needed in the education of our young people.

Utah’s leaders have not shown sufficient courage, urgency and persistence to make Utah a top education state so our young people can compete globally for the jobs of the future. As a pro-family culture with the most young people, percentagewise, of any state, we ought to aspire to be the nation’s top education state.

We won’t get there by spending the least per pupil in the country, no matter the uninformed arguments against taxes by groups like the Sutherland Institute and Americans for Prosperity (an out-of-state Koch-funded organization).

Nothing is more important to the future of Utah’s young people and our economy than education excellence.

Having said all that, I worry that the tax increase by Our Schools Now may not pass, setting back the cause of education funding. If it loses, the defenders of education mediocrity will say citizens are happy with the status quo. That would be unfortunate.