Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Citizen Initiatives Can Bring Much Needed Change

Utah as a state is doing pretty well these days.

We have a growing economy. We have low unemployment. Our societal bonds are fairly strong.

Part of this is our demographic make-up. We’re a bunch of white people, church-going, willing taxpayers. We don’t suffer to the same degree the unfortunate challenges of many minority groups in America.

But all this goodness doesn’t mean we can’t make things better here.

I know that one definition of “conservative” is resistant to change. And certainly, Utah is a conservative state.

Thus, in some parts of our society we don’t like change; even fear it.

But in other parts of Utah’s make-up, we actually like change.

We are an entrepreneurial group of people. We prize hard work, and getting out there and making a living with our small businesses, including the innovation of high-tech manufacturing and software.

Yet we can’t seem to make headway on a number of political issues.

So, I believe the time is ripe for a group of wealthy Utahns to step forward and organize a series of citizen initiative petitions to make our politics – and citizen representation – better.

The problem with this, of course, is that several of the areas I’m advocating don’t necessarily have a natural constituency.

These changes would be for the better, I believe. But who is going to put forward the work, time and hard cash?

Here are a few of the places I see the GOP-controlled Utah Legislature refusing to step forward, where such a citizen-minded group could change for the better through the initiative process:

— Term limits for state elected officials.

A recent UtahPolicy/Dan Jones poll finds that more than 80 percent of Utahns want some kind of term limits.

That is a huge majority. And the Legislature could adopt reasonable term limits for themselves, the governor and so on.

But they won’t. Why?

Because they did it once – back in 1994 fearing a citizen uprising – only to repeal the 12-year term limits as they came near the grandfathered in deadline.

The political reality is that 80-90-percent of the time legislative incumbents win re-election, and the only real way out of office is through retirement or death.

Term limits are wanted.  And term limits are needed. But they will come only through a citizen initiative petition.

— We should have U.S. House and legislative redistricting through a nonpartisan citizen commission.

Under the Utah Constitution (which can’t be amended via citizen petition), the Utah Legislature redraws its own House and Senate boundaries, and U.S. House districts, every ten years after a Census.

So legislators are redrawing their own district boundaries, in effect picking their own constituents.

This is a conflict of interest that really can’t be condoned in a modern society.

It’s one reason legislative incumbents can serve forever here. And legislators won’t give up this power. The citizens, through an initiative, must take if from them.

— We need same day voter registration/online voting.

If we can bank online and buy online, we can vote online – and do it securely.

Utah GOP legislators have made it clear they don’t want more citizens voting – hey, they don’t even want more Republicans voting.

You see this through stricter voter I.D. laws when, in fact, Utah has no history of voter fraud. None. It’s amazing how honest Utahns are when it comes to voting.

Yes, more ill-informed citizens may vote if you make it easier for all to do so. But that’s democracy. Utah has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the nation.

We need to make voting easier, not harder.

— Easier citizen referendums.

With more voter participation and online voting, the easier it should be to take major questions and put them on a ballot for citizen approval or rejection.

Polls have shown for years that most Utahns would increase their own personal income taxes if the money would go to their local schools and teachers.

The Legislature won’t act – fearing, I believe, the right wing of the Republican Party.

If the Legislature doesn’t act on major issues, then the citizens need an easier way around these obstructionists to a path for what the public really desires.

Since the Legislature, for its own reasons, won’t act on the above issues, it is time for a group of citizens – with the money and will power – to take these powers directly to the citizens via initiative petitions.

Yes, a petition would only be a law, if approved by voters. And the Utah Legislature could change it or repeal it at any time.

But I believe lawmakers would be loath to change or repeal a citizen initiative law if it passed with a strong vote of the people.

Utah is a good place to live, to do business, and raise a family.

But it can be better.

And now with our national government so crippled by blind partisanship, it would be a good time for a group of citizens to step forward with voter-empowered reforms.