Changing the rules
The Utah Legislature seems determined to make a mockery of the provision in the state Constitution that enshrines the right of the people to propose, adopt and repeal laws. And, so far, the Utah courts are helping.
A few days ago, a state judge rejected a plea from Utahns for Ethical Government that its petition to place a new state ethics regime before the voters be judged by the criteria that existed in state law when the petition was circulated and filed, not by the tougher rules the Legislature passed later.
A few days before that, former Congressman Merrill Cook, representing a group that had been trying to get an immigration control measure on the state ballot, stood before the Utah Supreme Court and made a similar argument. He, too, claims the Legislature has so tightened the rules for initiative and referendum petitions as to leave that constitutional safety valve stuck in the closed position.
Utahns for Ethical Government wants to clamp down on Utah's no-holds-barred campaign finance laws. It wants limits on campaign contributions, in a state that has none, to ban the personal use of campaign funds and to create an independent ethics commission.
Cook's Citizens Aligned to Secure Utah's Prosperity wants to place on a statewide ballot a measure that would require employers to use E-Verify, a federal system meant to confirm the Social Security numbers of job applicants.
The question for the courts is not whether either or both of those measures would be good law. The question is whether the process the backers of those initiatives have been forced to follow was changed so radically, and at such a time, as to make the constitutionally mandated process a joke.
The ethics group says it had enough signatures on its petitions to meet the threshold of the law as it existed before the Legislature changed the rules in 2011. The change in the law came after that petition drive was launched and closed, after the petitions were filed with the lieutenant governor, but before the signatures were officially counted. It also argues that it should be able to count signatures filed electronically.
Cook similarly argues that the rules were changed in the middle of the game, shortening the time allowed to begin and close a petition drive from three years to 316 days.
The same Utah Constitution that grants the people the power to pass legislation also grants the Legislature the power to set the rules for the process.
But that is a power lawmakers have abused. The Utah Supreme Court should set them straight because, under the new petition rules, the people aren't likely to have a chance.