Guest editorial: By seeking to circumvent ballot initiatives, lawmakers are silencing Utahns
March 5, 2018
"If you want something done right, do it yourself" seems to sum up the attitude of Utah's voters this year, as citizens are working to bring half a dozen new ballot initiatives to the polls in November. The initiatives, which cover topics including school funding, primary elections and medical cannabis, all have something in common: They seek to solve problems that Utah's lawmakers have failed to adequately address.
"You have these initiatives crop up because people get so frustrated that the Legislature is not responding to their desires," House Minority Leader Brian S. King told the Salt Lake Tribune. "That's important for us to take to heart at the Legislature."
But instead of taking it to heart, some legislators are trying to thwart the citizens' efforts. Their strategy is to undercut the ballot initiatives with legislation that goes part of the way — but not as far as needed — in addressing the issues. Their hope seems to be that after years of ignoring voters' demands for action, they will be able to quiet those demands with watered-down legislation while retaining the status quo: legislators make the laws, and citizens make do with the laws that have been made for them.
Case in point: the Our Schools Now initiative, which proposes to raise about $700 million annually in education funds through a 0.45 percent increase in sales and income tax. State Rep. Mike Schultz has responded with HB 299, a bill that would go into effect if voters approve the initiative to hike their own taxes. Schultz's bill would immediately lower those taxes, and instead use "huge increased revenue projections" from sales and use taxes for education funding. Will HB 299 be able to match Our Schools Now's $700 million in funds? It depends on who you ask … but Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said he believes it can come close. And if voters insist on choosing the tax hike as a sure funding source, HB 299 guarantees that their votes won't matter; the citizens will be overruled by the officials who were elected to represent them.
Citizens' efforts may end up being overruled on the issue of health-care coverage, as well. Two-thirds of Utahns support full Medicaid expansion, according to polls, and that's what the Utah Decides Healthcare initiative offers; it would close the coverage gap for about 120,000 Utah residents with incomes too high for Medicaid but too low for the federal health-care exchange. It was brought forward to allow voters to decide for themselves on the issue since, as Senate President Wayne Niederhauser said, the Legislature probably won't approve full Medicaid expansion. Instead, lawmakers may counter the initiative with a bill of their own — a watered-down version that Rep. Robert Spendlove has promised would come complete with work requirements and spending caps, and that would cover only those with incomes up to 100 percent of the federal poverty level.
And no issue illustrates the gap between voters and their elected officials more strongly than medical cannabis. While polls show that 76 percent of Utahns favor the Utah Medical Cannabis Act, legislators are reportedly hatching a cynical plan to bury it. This would involve passing a law identical to the initiative, but with one addition: It would only take effect if Congress changes the drug classification of cannabis from Schedule I (the same as heroin) to Schedule IV (the same as Ambien). Thus, even if the initiative passes, it would not be implemented.
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With a record 1,341 bill files to address in a 45-day session, Utah lawmakers have enough on their plates without adding legislation for the sole purpose of silencing the voice of the people.