Bob Bernick’s notebook: Repealing SB54 could lead to unintended consequences

Bob BernickAs I’ve noted in a previous UtahPolicy analysis, Republicans in the Utah House are coming close – or are already there – in getting the 38 votes needed to repeal SB54.

You know that famous 2014 bill – the compromise between GOP House and Senate members made with the backers of the Count My Vote citizen initiative petition.

Even though SB54 PRESERVES the caucus/delegate/convention route of a candidate to the primary ballot, the Utah Republican Party has fought SB54 in court and – losing there three times – will now take further internal steps to blunt or reject SB54-route GOP candidates.

And state party leaders – especially the 120-member Central Committee – and several county Republican parties have been pressuring Republican lawmakers to repeal SB54 or change it to, again, blunt or weaken the petition-gathering route.

What I ask now – considering the weird amendments made to SB114 in the just-finished 2017 Legislature – what could Utah lawmakers be facing if they continue to bash-or-break the SB54 compromise?

Well, leaders of CMV have been telling me for some time that if the Legislature goes back on SB54, they will again run their petition.

And it will look much like it did in 2014 – to whit, do away completely with the convention route for candidates to get to the primary election.

Court ruling after court ruling upholds the power of the state to control access to primary election ballots – because the states run the elections. The primary ballot belongs to the citizens, not the party organization.

Here’s something to think about for GOP lawmakers who today are voting against the SB54 compromise – the promise, if you will, made by the 2014 Legislature:

Don’t just believe CMV-backers could come back with just a single route-to-the-primary petition.

While petition law limits those actions to a single topic, it would not be much more work for CMV to run multiple ballot propositions at the same time.

After all, the petitioning person walking door to door or standing on the curb outside of a large retail store could collect signatures on two, or three, or even four separate petitions at the same time – not much more work there.

And if the party following GOP lawmakers repeal or substantially weaken SB54, they could be facing petitions that could really, really impact their political lives beyond the route to their primaries.

Such as:

— A petition to limit the terms of legislators and statewide officers, like the governor.

Term limits are popular in Utah, 85 percent support some kind of term limits, a UtahPolicy poll by Dan Jones & Associates finds.

But lawmakers have been real weasels on it. Back in 1992 legislators passed a 12-year limit (pressured by a term limit petition on the ballot AND a Sen. Orrin Hatch perennial re-election bid).

But legislators deferred the kick-out time for 12 years ahead, grandfathering themselves in.

As that 12-year deadline loomed, they repealed term limits – breaking their promise to the people.

— Placing reasonable campaign donation limits on legislators and governors et al.

Again, a UtahPolicy poll by Jones finds majority support for such limits – 68 percent.

A special democracy commission established by former GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman recommended such limits.

But Huntsman left to be China ambassador and his successor, then-Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert opposed the donation limits, and GOP lawmakers have never liked such limits. Nothing was done on the commission’s campaign finance recommendations.

By far, most Utah legislators get the bulk of their campaign donations from special interests – very little from their own constituents.

Incumbents always have advantages in fundraising, but leveling the playing field a bit for challengers could harm sitting legislators’ re-election chances.

— A petition could set up a special non-partisan redistricting commission, to recommend to the Legislature how every-decade redrawing of state and federal districts should be lined out.

Currently, the state Constitution says the Legislature will redistrict. So the final job must stay with legislators, for you can’t change the Constitution via petition.

But let’s say the petition has three retired state judges redrawing boundaries, and recommending that to lawmakers.

It would be pretty tough for the partisan-elected legislators to overrule the judges’ fair-minded redistricting – especially if one of the commission requirements is that you can’t take into consideration where sitting lawmakers live.

Current law says you must reside in your district, so if a non-partisan redistricting put you outside of your district, you’d have to move or leave office.

— Internet voting. Securely voting online would really open up our democratic elections.

The GOP Legislature won’t even mandate same-day registration/voting – they so dislike the idea of more citizens casting ballots.

Would 80-90 percent voter participation change the face of the Utah Legislature?

— Some states have gone to “all party” or “jungle” primaries. Every candidate – no matter what party they represent – is on the same primary ballot.

In very Republican areas, the final two candidates could be Republicans, vice versa for Democrats in liberal areas.

In such situations, there would likely be a conservative Republican vs. a moderate Republican on the final ballot (liberal vs. moderate on the Democratic side).

The moderates in both parties would likely be favored in such cases – and how would the very conservative Utah Legislature like that one?

So, a warning to Republicans in the Utah Legislature, weaken or repeal SB54 at your own political risk.

Don’t count on CMV folks – who had a ton of money behind them in 2014 – just running one petition in the future.