by Howard Stephenson
An initiative petition which would have imposed punitive taxes on a single Utah business has failed to qualify for the November ballot. In a two-pronged attack against the measure, opponents challenged the validity of the petition in court and worked to encourage citizens who had signed the petition to have their names removed.
The petition sought to raise the fees on Envirocare’s low-level radioactive waste disposal business in Utah’s west desert. The tax would have been earmarked for education and the homeless. The funds would have been given directly to private organizations, bypassing the normal appropriations process. Earlier this year some of the petition’s supporters had unsuccessfully tried to get the Utah Legislature to impose a new sales tax for the homeless.
The Opposition Stepped Up
A broad coalition of business groups opposed the initiative, arguing that the precedent set by singling out certain enterprises for punitive taxes could be devastating to Utah’s future job creation.
Several legislators from both major political parties joined in a lawsuit challenging the legality of some signature gatherers and signers. State law requires that signature gatherers be Utah citizens, and it appears that some of them were not and that some signatures were fraudulent. Additionally, Utahns Against Unfair Taxes (UAUT), launched an effort to go to petition signers in Utah’s small rural counties to explain the petition and ask them if they wanted their names removed from the petition.
Nearly 77,000 signatures were required to place the “Radioactive Waste Restrictions Act” (RWRA) on the November 2002 ballot for voter approval. Signatures equal to ten percent of those who voted in the last election for governor had to be collected in each of 20 of Utah’s 29 counties by June 3, 2002.
Although petition promoters turned in 95,000 signatures to county clerks, UAUT succeeded in getting thousands of signers to submit a notarized removal request before county clerks turned the certified petitions in to the state election office. While the 95,000 signatures collected were more than enough to qualify the initiative, proponents failed to garner the needed percentages in the required 20 counties. The petition failed to meet the threshold in 15 counties, missing by a combined 130 signatures in the five counties that would have put the petition over the top. The petition fell short by only six signatures in Daggett, 15 in Wayne and 17 in Grand.
They’ll Be Back
Under state law, petition signatures are good for two election cycles and backers of the petition have vowed they will work to make up the 130 signatures by June of 2004. But they can also count on foes of the proposal to be working to de-certify more signatures in more counties.
Lawmakers are also likely to propose changes to Utah’s initiative law to either help or hurt RWRA. A few years ago the threshold was raised from qualifying in 15 counties to 20. The legislature may raise that requirement to 29 counties, or it could prohibit initiatives that increase taxes on a narrow segment of society. Proponents may also seek legislation to reduce the threshold or to restrict methods of how signatures may be removed.
Democracy or a Republic?
Civics classes teach us that America is not a Democracy – it is a Republic. Rather than the people meeting to make all of the laws directly, we elect representatives to make laws for us. However, in many states, the direct-democracy options of initiative and referendum are available. In some states – not Utah – the people also have the ability to recall elected officials during their terms of office.
While the initiative process is the worst possible way to make laws, I believe the right of the people to use initiative and referendum must always be protected. Utah citizens should also have the power of recall. These are the tools the electorate must have to keep elected officials responsive to the will of the people. Without these safeguards, elected representatives sometimes become arrogant and out of touch.