Referendum bill defeated in Utah House of Representatives
A referendum bill died in the Utah House of Representatives on Thursday, March 14 without a discussion or vote.
"It passed the Senate, but at a much slimmed down version of what was originally proposed," said Kraig Powell, R-Heber City. "And because the House was hearing so much bad about it for weeks, when it got to the House, it appeared to me that no one wanted to touch it."
S.B. 66, Referendum Revisions, sponsored by Sen. Stuart Reid, would have increased the petition requirements for citizens to challenge laws passed by local authorities.
"It felt like the representatives didn’t want to be in a position to have to vote on it," Reid said. "While it received a fairly favorable reception in the Senate, it didn’t in the House. the time it got to the House, there were a number of groups that had started to lobby against it."
The bill received public opposition through e-mails and letters from around the state, Powell said.
"I was surprised at the amount of public interest we received on that bill," he said. "What we saw with S.B. 66 was the power of democracy and the reaction citizens have when government tries to take over their right to challenge the law."
Summit County was not the only government entity to experience a recent referendum that froze tax increases.
Citizens also successfully passed referendums in Davis County and Orem City.
"They had some very contentious fights, just as contentious as or even more contentious than in Summit County," he said. "All those grass-roots organizers know how to organize and work the political process. It’s how they got where they are. And they were very effective in organizing the Legislature."
The original bill called for an increase in the number of signatures required to pass a petition. The increase, however, received strong opposition and was removed before it could pass the Senate.
"I did not have a problem with the bill, but there was a problem in some of the larger counties," said Mel Brown, R-Coalville. "Any one of the entities in the county that had a serious problem with the county government could probably generate enough signatures in their area to put something on the ballot, even if the rest of the county didn’t want it."
Powell said he did not support the original form of S.B. 66.
"It would have taken the signature threshold up very high, to 20 or 30 percent of the voters," Powell said.
Powell did, however, write his own amendment to the bill which addressed assessment area issues, so that signatures could only be gathered from those living in the area who would be affected by the particular referendum issue.
"I talked with many legislators about that idea, and they thought it was logical and didn’t have a problem with it," he said. "Unfortunately, I was prepared to make that amendment when we debated S.B. 66 in the House, but it was never debated so I never got a chance to."
The item was not voted on, discussed or debated, Powell said.
"We did have a presentation in the House Majority Caucus on Monday or Tuesday of this week from the League of Cities and Towns, which tried to explain to House members what the bill was doing and why it was necessary," he said. "Even then legislators looked at it with disfavor."
Powell said he has great respect for the Utah League of Cities and Towns.
"This was their bill and they have a great machine that gets input from all sides, drafts bills and works on them," he said. "I assumed they would at least get some form of the bill passed, but unfortunately it did not work out that way."
Going forward, Powell said it will be very difficult for anyone to amend the current referendum law, and that to be successful, legislators will have to take small steps, such as focusing on the assessment area.
Powell said he would be happy to come back with his own bill on the assessment area.
"Any of the other parts are just more difficult, apparently," he said. "And we’ll just have to work better, earlier on, to get more understanding and cooperation."
Powell added that he will also try to address the timing issue of referendums that the county faced last year, where referendum deadlines make it impossible for county citizens to vote on referendums the same year they are passed.
"I’m sad we could not get some amendments made through the process," he said. "I think without going overboard, there could have been minor adjustments to the law that could have been positive, but you can’t predict the legislative process, and we just weren’t able to get anything done, and it’s primarily because of the power of direct democracy."
Reid said there is an important overall principle highlighted by the bill.
"We are a republic form of government," he said. "We elect representatives to represent us in a city council or the county commission, and it should be difficult, though not impossible, for the people to referendum to override the decisions of those representatives.
"What this legislation was trying to do, was make sure that if that happened, it came from across the community, not just one neighborhood or segment of the community, but was the representative feelings and objectives of people across the community."
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