Bob Bernick’s notebook: Taking the initiative

Over the next several months there’s a real possibility you could be asked to sign one or more citizen initiative petitions.

UtahPolicy has reported on four different initiative petition efforts:

  • Our Schools Now – asking voters in the November 2018 election to approve a 0.5 percent increase in the personal income and state sales tax rates, aimed at bringing $700 million more each year to public schools.
  • The possible return of the Count My Vote petition which would set up a signature-gathering-only route to a party primary for candidates. (This petition could include other government/election reforms, also).
  • petition that would set up a bipartisan, citizen commission to recommend to the Legislature redistricting boundaries for the U.S. House, State House, and Senate, and State School Board (should that election remain partisan in nature).
  • petition to legalize medical marijuana for use to treat some diseases/medical conditions.

If all ultimately make it to the 2018 ballot, this likely would be the first time in state history voters are asked to decide four changes to state law in one election, via the citizen initiative route.

While the Constitution provides for this option, so citizens themselves can adopt a state law, it’s not often used.

The Legislature sets up the rules for such petitions, and lawmakers traditionally jealously guarded their law-making role – and made it difficult to get a petition to the ballot.

Petitioners (in this coming election) must gather 113,000 valid voter signatures statewide. Also, in 26 of the 29 state Senate districts the gatherers must get at least 10 percent of the registered voters’ signatures.

While it is tough to get 113,000 signatures, the practical hurdle is getting the 10 percent figure in so many Senate districts.

Lawmakers have also allowed opponents of petitions efforts to contact signees and lobby them to remove their signatures from petitions already turned into election officials – thus requiring petition supporters to gather even more signatures.

There is already a move afoot by opponents of one of the initiatives – the Our Schools Now – to get you NOT to sign the petition, should you be asked to do so by a petition carrier.

The current petition law is so challenging, in fact, that gone are the days when someone like Merrill Cook could run a government reform petition and get it on the ballot mostly with all volunteer help.

It now takes a professional petition-gathering firm to qualify for the ballot – at the cost of $25,000 to $100,000, depending on the issue and time given before the petition turn-in deadline.

In any case, I encourage you to sign each and every one of these petitions, should you be asked to do so.

Rarely am I opposed to Utah citizens deciding for themselves important issues via a petition – from taxation to school funding to the use of medical marijuana.

And my reason is simple: If a voter is smart enough to pick a Congressman, or Utah legislator, or governor, he or she is smart enough to decide a ballot proposition.

It’s true we are a democratic republic form of government – we elect people, from school board members to U.S. senators, to make decisions for us.

But from time to time there are important matters – in the cases of these four petitions – upon which state lawmakers won’t act.

Or at least won’t do as much, or go as far, as we, the citizens, want them to.

The medical marijuana issue is just one – lawmakers have considered adopting a legalizing law. But have refused to do so.

Lawmakers have passed laws allowing for the medical study of MM and taken other baby steps.

But suffering Utahns and their loved ones want more. And public opinion polls by UtahPolicy show citizens want more, too.

Two-thirds of Utahns favor legalizing medical marijuana.

That is the whole idea behind citizens giving themselves – through their state Constitution – the option of directly adopting their own laws via the ballot box.

There are all kinds of checks and balances to this citizen power – one of which is that via the petition process voters can only change state law.

And a statute can be modified or repealed by any future Legislature, or by a future citizen petition vote.

Arguments that Utahns are too stupid to decide these issues for themselves are demeaning to citizens, in general, and on specific topics.

If you are smart enough to pick your own officeholders, pick your religion, pick your spouse, pick your daily work, you are smart enough (and adult enough) to make wise choices on a petition ballot.

To argue otherwise is just elitism: “I’m smarter than you, I’ll make this decision for you. You wouldn’t want to hurt yourself. Let me take care of it.”

So be careful of those – no matter what their ranks, or religious or civic offices – who tell you not to sign a citizen petition.

They fear you making your own choice at the ballot box.

And that choice – that right, my friend — is a basic tenant of American self-government.