howardnlby Howard Stephenson
As a result of a recent Utah Supreme Court decision which threw out some of the limits the Utah legislature had placed on citizens’ rights to initiate statutes by direct election, several legislators are poised to change the initiative law. The court ruled that the people have a fundamental right to initiative and referendum and that to qualify a petition for the ballot, all eligible signers must have equal weight. The court said that the current statutory requirement for collecting signatures of registered voters equal to 10% of those who voted for governor in the last election was a reasonable threshold, but to require that the 10% rule be applied also in at least 20 of Utah’s 29 counties, gave citizens in small counties a disproportionate ability to qualify or disqualify an initiative for the ballot. In other words, signatures of a few hundred voters in a small county should not have greater weight than tens of thousands of signatures in a large county.
Senator Bill Hickman is preparing legislation which would require the 10% threshold in all 29 Senate Districts. This would clearly satisfy the one-man, one-vote requirement. But if the law is passed and then challenged, the court may declare initiative ballot qualifications to be unnecessarily difficult.
Hickman is also considering some other amendments to raise the bar in qualifying initiatives for the ballot. He wonders if there ought to be a four-year restriction against filing an initiative again if it or something like it had previously failed at any point in the process. That would mean the Utah Education Association, for example, could file a petition for tuition tax credits, which they oppose, and simply refuse to gather signatures, thereby barring anyone else from pushing an initiative for tuition tax credits.
It’s no secret that many legislators despise the initiative process and would rather see it eliminated, as it has been in a handful of states. They point to the fact that the founders of this nation were inspired to create a democratic republic, which means we have representative democracy, not direct democracy. Some legislators feel direct democracy is dangerous. They say the best referendum is the election process where we can vote out of office those who enact bad laws or fail to enact the laws the people want.
I disagree. No one is going to get voted out of office over one miscast vote. Most people may be happy with more than 90% of the votes cast by my representative and much happier than with the votes that would have been cast by his opponent. So we don’t want to throw him out of office. We just want to repeal the one bad law he helped to enact or enact one good proposal he and his colleagues failed to pass. The initiative process is the way to do that.
Admittedly, the initiative process is cumbersome, and most initiatives which have qualified for the ballot in the Beehive state have failed at the ballot box. Still, the right of initiative is an important protection which must be preserved.
Lawmakers, Law Enforcement Leaders Seek to Gut Utah Property Protection Act
One of the few initiatives to pass in Utah was Initiative B, the Utah Property Protection Act (UPPA). It was approved by a whopping 70% margin in the 2000 General Election, despite stiff opposition from state and local law enforcement groups. I supported the initiative and appeared in TV advertisements urging its passage.
Now, just two years after voters approved this law which protects property owners from unfair property forfeitures, a group of Utah legislators and leaders of law enforcement are preparing to gut it. Last week the legislature’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee rubber-stamped a bill presented by Clark Harms, Salt Lake County Deputy District Attorney, that would undo many of Initiative B’s reforms.
If you want to know the motives for prosecutors and law enforcement officials pushing these amendments, simply follow the money. Initiative B prevents law enforcement agencies from taking property without convicting property owners of a crime, and then selling the property and keeping the proceeds for the law enforcement budget. As a supporter of Initiative B, I argued it was un-American to take someone’s property without first proving they are guilty of a crime. I also said it was wrong to give law enforcement a financial incentive to seize property. The money from seizures should instead go to the general fund, or a specific non-police budget. We won these debates on election day two years ago.
Initiative B also requires forfeitures to be proportionate to the crime, requires the government to reimburse a property owner for legal expenses when property is wrongfully seized, and prohibits the police from charging vehicle impound fees if the case against the accused is dismissed. The current amendments would undo all of these important reforms.
But perhaps the most egregious indicator of the arrogance of Utah public officials charged with enforcement of Initiative B is their refusal to fully implement the citizen-passed law. One of the main selling points of the initiative was the promise of annual, public audits of the property forfeiture program. But after two years, it appears that not one of the legally required annual audits has been conducted. Also, the law promised to redirect money from the sale of forfeited property to Utah’s public schools. Over 150 forfeitures of property owned by drug dealers and other criminals have been ordered by the courts since the initiative became law, but it appears that not one dime of this money has been placed in the Uniform School Fund.
Citizens have reason to be concerned that the coming session of the legislature could undermine both their ability to enact direct legislation by initiative and to preserve the people’s most recently enacted initiative.