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Robbing the people

Published February 20, 2013 1:01 am

Bill would gut right of redress
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In their relentless quest to make their stranglehold on Utah government complete, Republican lawmakers are advancing legislation that would cripple the right of ordinary citizens to repeal decisions of local elected officials by referendum.

Under SB66, sponsored by Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, citizens unhappy with a decision by a local government body would face significantly greater obstacles to repealing such decisions at the ballot box.

In some cases, the bill would force referendum organizers to obtain two to three times as many signatures of like-minded citizens than are presently required for space on the ballot. The threshold for Utah's largest cities and counties is already sufficiently daunting — signatures from 10 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots in the most recent presidential election.

SB66 would bump up that 10 percent standard to 20 percent in Salt Lake County and to 30 percent in Utah's 28 other counties. In the case of land-use decisions, the current signature requirement in urban counties would stay the same, and in rural counties it would fall from 35 percent to 30 percent.

The bill also requires the organizers to convene a public hearing and to produce an objective cost-benefit analysis for repealing a local ordinance or policy. Neither seems unreasonable, and perhaps that is why SB66 is being trumpeted as a victory for transparency. Would that were the whole truth.

Regulations governing referendums should strike a balance between the constitutional right of the people to overturn actions by their elected representatives and to offer reasonable protections to those officials when they make tough but unpopular decisions or would otherwise be targets of frivolous petitions.

The Utah Constitution allows for collection of signatures to place a referendum on the ballot, but leaves it up to the Legislature to set the rules. And the mostly Republican body is notoriously hostile to referendums and initiative petitions, and has set the procedural barriers so high that they essentially obliterate the citizens' right of redress.

For Reid and the Utah League of Cities and Towns, which backs SB66, the current reasonable standard just leaves too much to chance. Better to force unhappy voters to wait until those responsible for an egregious decision run for re-election or retire.

After all, these sly usurpers of the people's rights know that the people have short memories.