Pignanelli and Webb: Has direct democracy been good or bad for Utah?

At the risk of ultra-hyperbole (at which Frank excels), we can legitimately claim that Utah has experienced an unprecedented level of direct democracy through initiatives, referenda and ballot measures. This includes statewide and local efforts by citizens to impact their government. Is this a just a blip, or are we becoming California?

In 2018, a record number of initiatives were filed (three ultimately succeeded and one was resolved through a nonbinding ballot question), while a number of Utah municipalities confronted referenda challenging various government decisions. A constitutional amendment was also on the statewide ballot. Why is this happening and should Utahns be concerned?

Pignanelli: "One of the nuisances of the ballot is that when the oracle has spoken you never know what it means.” — Lord Salisbury

A ballot initiative effort is similar to a high school election. A small group of well-meaning activists huddle in a living room, developing catchy slogans while hoping external donors (aka parents) cover expenses. Without resources to incentivize volunteers (aka pizza), the enterprise is doomed.

For decades, signature gathering was prohibitively expensive. After the legislature enacted SB54 in 2014 allowing candidates’ placement on the primary ballot through petition, a permanent signature gathering industry was established in Utah. The costs for statewide initiatives and local referenda dropped. Further, national special-interest groups are focusing resources in states. Thus, while the Legislature did tighten the process, initiatives and referenda will remain an option on selected issues with an energized constituency.

As with high school electioneering, Utahns must look beyond cutesy catchphrases in determining their support of a ballot measure. Alas, they will not get a cupcake for the effort.

Webb: Utahns need not be concerned over the proliferation of citizen initiated lawmaking. In fact, Utahns should celebrate the opportunity to participate in this constitutionally approved process to enact laws and impact government. The Legislature itself endorsed the process by putting two measures on the statewide ballot, one a constitutional amendment and the other a nonbinding ballot question on raising taxes for schools.

Citizen lawmaking is still rare and difficult in Utah. We’re not even close to being California. It is almost prohibitively difficult to get something on the ballot and only the most weighty, important issues make it to a public vote. Medicaid expansion, medical marijuana, school funding, redistricting and constitutional amendments are all worthy subjects for the public to weigh in on.

It’s helpful for the Legislature to know that on truly significant issues, voters can directly get involved if lawmakers don’t act.

The 2019 Legislature reviewed numerous bills, some of which passed, changing statewide and local initiative and referendum procedures. Will this have an impact?

Pignanelli: Changes to the process include basing thresholds on “active” voters and expanding opportunities for signatories to remove their names from petitions. This guarantees that signature drives will need three campaigns: convincing people to sign the petition, urging people not to retract signatures and persuading voters in the general election. This increases obstacles and costs for statewide and local campaigns.

There is some grumpiness about these modifications. Yet, it is imperative supporters and proponents communicate their issues to those who have the potential to sign, or have signed, a petition. My personal experience suggests the language of a petition is usually developed by insiders without the benefit of contrasting opinions. Obviously, those approached to sign a petition do not receive a full discussion of the issue. The legislation now allows for that key dynamic.

Webb: The Utah Supreme Court has previously ruled that the Legislature cannot make the initiative process so difficult as to render it impractical for citizens to make laws. Our system of government is brilliant in that the courts, legislature, executive branch and the people (through initiatives and referenda) check and balance each other, pushing and pulling, arguing and fighting — and eventually striking the right balance.

The Legislature significantly changed two of the three initiative laws passed by voters, and may yet tamper with the third. Is this proper?

Pignanelli: The Legislature modified the initiative process wherein successful measures are effective after the intervening Legislative session, and those with fiscal impact a year later. This is a clear signal that legislators will exercise their constitutional prerogative to amend ballot actions that impact core governmental activities.

Webb: The Legislature is part of the process, within constitutional guidelines, and it has the authority to change a citizen-passed law. Lawmakers obviously must take into account public sentiment. If voters don’t like what lawmakers did, boot them out of office.

It’s important to keep in mind the big picture: The recent initiative efforts have been spectacularly successful — for better or for worse. Today, a whole lot more people are eligible for medical care under Medicaid expansion; medical marijuana will now be available; and some sort of independent commission will likely be involved in redistricting.

Even the Count My Vote initiative was incredibly successful, despite the fact that it ultimately didn’t get on the ballot. The SB54 legislative compromise means a dual track exists to get on the primary election ballot — permanently changing Utah politics for the better.

These are real victories for the proponents.