Foes cry foul on petition law fixes

Published March 17, 2010 6:30 pm
Initiatives » Some fear signature-removal bill would weakens people's right to referendums.
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One initiative and referendum expert finds recent legislative action disturbing.

"I am very troubled by it," said Attorney Lisa Watts Baskin, referring to Sen. Howard Stephenson's SB275 which passed both chambers in partisan fashion -- most Republicans liked it, Democrats did not.

Republicans outnumber Democrats more than two to one in Utah's statehouse, so the measure passed with a two-thirds majority and can take effect as soon as Gov. Gary Herbert signs it -- or on April 1 without his signature. A veto could drag the process out further.

SB275 does two things: It removes the requirement for a notary to get signatures removed from petitions, and it gives opponents an extra inning to play after the other team has left the field.

The new law takes aim at an independent redistricting commission put forward by Fair Boundaries and an expansive ethics reform measure sponsored by Utahns for Ethical Government.

But the bill's supporters argue that it's simply a matter of fairness.

"We realized that the state code allowed a simple way to get a name on and a complicated way to get it off," said Stan Rasmussen of Utah's conservative Sutherland Institute.

Rasmussen said the Institute adamantly opposes UEG's initiative as being "fraught with problems" and threatening Utah's representative form of government.

Statewide petition drives have until April 15 to gather 95,000 valid voter signatures in 26 of 29 state Senate districts. Once submitted to county clerks for verification, adversaries can obtain signature lists.

"Opponents have a full month" -- until May 15 -- "to take potshots by name and address," Watts Baskin said. Overturning just one Senate district -- the one with the slimmest margin -- keeps an initiative off the ballot.

Stephenson's bill really doesn't change any rules, countered Dave Hansen, chairman of the State Republican Party, which opposes UEG's measure as "bad legislation."

"They still have to get the 95,000 signatures and meet the same deadline," Hansen said.

And signature-removal campaigns are nothing new, Hansen added. His party has discussed strategy this time around.

"We have not made any definite plans," Hansen said. "If we decide to do it, we'll be ready."

In Utah, the state Constitution guarantees citizens the right to initiate legislation -- but lawmakers can regulate that power.

Not all GOP lawmakers linked arms on this issue. Bountiful Rep. Sheryl Allen, one of three who voted against SB275, said the threshold was already quite high for citizen-led legislation.

"SB275 weakens the process -- we've made it closer to impossible," Allen said.

The 2007 referendum vote on the highly contentious school voucher issue exemplified the disconnect between elected representatives and the people, said University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank.

"Representatives were hearing from ideological and interest groups," Burbank said. "But the vote made it clear that the public didn't support vouchers."

As Watts Baskin sees it, redistricting and ethics are two issues that deserve a full vetting.

"Putting an issue on the ballot for public discourse is democracy at its finest," she said. "The effort to scuttle that debate is tantamount to tyranny."

If opponents succeed in keeping these two initiatives off the ballot, Watts Baskin is convinced that such behavior will have a chilling effect on citizen activism in the future.

The message that lawmakers sent to the people with SB275, Burbank said, is that they've been "fooled" into signing petitions.

"It's already extremely difficult to meet the existing rules to get an initiative on the ballot," Burbank said. "This says you signed and didn't know what you were doing."

Burbank doubts if many actually fall into that category, but the bill's sponsor believes his measure will help.

"SB275 ensures that signature gatherers are not just carnival barkers," Stephenson said, "but instead take time to educate the signer."

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Proposed new law changes rules for removing signatures from initiative petitions. Supporters say it is a matter of fairness -- making it as easy to remove a name as to sign a petition. Opponents say it is an attack on citizens' right to initiate legislation by providing an extra month to those working to defeat an issue before it goes to voters. The bill is awaiting action by the governor.

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