by Howard Stephenson
There’s an initiative petition circulating around the state which could be devastating to Utah’s future job creation.
Frustrated with what they say is the Legislature’s failure to adequately raise the fees on radioactive waste disposal, an initiative petition is being circulated to impose massive new taxes on a single Utah corporation — Envirocare. The tax would be earmarked to fund education and the homeless.
The initiative is being spearheaded by a new group headed by local contract lobbyists Doug Foxley and Frank Pignanelli, the Utah Education Association, the National Education Association, homeless advocates, and former Salt Lake Tribune publisher Jack Gallivan.
The petition, which was certified by the Lt. Governor on April 15, 2002, will be distributed throughout the state by paid signature gatherers seeking the required 76,180 signatures. Signatures equal to ten percent of those who voted in the last election for governor must be collected in each of 20 of Utah’s 29 counties by June 3, 2002. Success in the signature drive would put the “Radioactive Waste Restrictions Act” (RWRA), a 35 page document, on the November 2002 ballot for voter approval, bypassing the legislature and governor in the process. Proponents have reportedly committed to spend a million dollars to collect the required signatures.
Regardless of whether Envirocare could withstand more taxes (and there are many who believe the tax would be more than the gross revenues of the company, putting them out of business) and despite legitimate needs of public education and the homeless this initiative should be stopped in its tracks.
The rights of the people to use initiative and referendum must always be protected. These are the tools the electorate must always have to keep elected officials responsive to the will of the people. Without these safeguards, elected representatives become arrogant.
Having said that, I believe the initiative process is the worst possible way to make laws. The legislative process is bad enough, having been compared to the disgusting practice of making sausages, but the initiative process is much, much worse. First, the initiative cannot be amended throughout the debate as a similar proposal could be in the legislative process. Consequently, if there are mistakes discovered along the way, that’s just too bad, we’re stuck with them.
Second, people can be enticed to sign the petition based on the signature collector’s biased explanation of what the proposal does. Seldom do signers actually read the petition which, in this case, is nearly 30 pages of fine-print. When the issue appears on the ballot, the best funded advertising campaign usually wins, regardless of the merits of the issue.
Third, under current Utah law, the initiative can be used to discriminate against various classes of citizens and businesses. Since the electorate doesn’t have an ox being gored, and especially if a worthy cause is to receive the money, why not sign the petition and vote for the proposal? After all, businesses have plenty of money.
It’s one thing for the people to circulate petitions to refer a general tax increase passed by the legislature to a vote of the people, but for the initiative pushers to single out one solitary business for punitive taxes is unconscionable. Where will it stop? I can think of a few other Utah businesses who would likely be the next targets including certain types of mining and manufacturing.
The passage of this initiative or even the successful collection of signatures, could have a chilling effect on future business growth in Utah.
Another dangerous precedent contained in the petition is the earmarking of huge sums of new taxes for specific loosely defined causes with inadequate provisions for governance of the funds. I, too, would like more money for education, but initiatives like this one might actually reduce taxes for education by curtailing economic growth.
The purpose of the homeless trust fund which would be created through the new tax is to generate an endowment of over $100 million to provide for the ongoing care of the needy. I believe individuals have a moral obligation to provide for the homeless and the poor, but charity is most effective when it comes from a willing giver to grateful receiver. There is nothing so beautiful as today’s citizens willingly giving to assist today’s needy. Elimination of this connection turns the assistance into an entitlement which is often begrudged by the recipient as insufficient. If we had a new tax source to create a trust fund, I could think of many purposes which would be equally desirable. Why a fund for the homeless and not some other worthy purpose?
Thankfully, a broad-based consortium of business organizations and employers have formed the Utah Employers Coalition (UEC) to oppose the RWRA petition. Membership includes the Utah Manufacturers Association, Utah Mining Association, Utah Food Industry Association, Utah Taxpayers Association, Utah Farm Bureau Federation, and many others. The UEC is working to circumvent the signature collection process, in hopes that the measure will not qualify for the November 2002 ballot by encouraging citizens in at least 10 small counties to not sign the petition. They can be reached at
In the meantime, if you’re asked to sign the petition between now and the first part of June, just say no! And if you’ve already signed it, just contact your county clerk and have your name removed from the petition.