Gehrke: The people had their say in a historic way, but will the Legislature let it stand?

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

“The people have spoken — the bastards.”

That was California state senate candidate Dick Tuck’s take on losing his race in 1966.

It could also be the reaction of at least some Utah legislators after voters Tuesday approved two ballot initiatives — medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion.

A third, creating an independent redistricting commission, is teetering and could pass or fail depending on the way the rest of the ballots fall.

Whichever way the Better Boundaries initiative ends up, the results are still a historic flexing of the people’s legislative muscle. The last voter initiative passed in 2000 (the 2007 voucher repeal was technically a referendum, which is slightly different) and there have been just three initiatives passed since 1960.

The reason they’re so rare is that the Legislature, obsessively protective of its power, has made them very, very difficult.

So, after years of frustration with legislative unwillingness to address key issues, or at least the excruciatingly slow pace they moved, fed up voters finally got their say. Sure, the results were close — not what you might consider a mandate — but you would think it would at least get the Legislature’s attention.

There are already rumblings in the Capitol, however, that the Legislature will tinker with or possibly gut the new laws, undermining the will of the people expressed just three days ago.

There already is, of course, the much publicized compromise bill on medical marijuana that is expected to be the subject of a special legislative session next month.

That is a bit of a coup in its own right. Despite firm, clear opposition from the top ranks of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a majority of Utahns went ahead and did the right thing anyway and passed Proposition 2. And the ranks of supporters, statistically, had to include a sizable percentage of Latter-day Saints.

At least the support for medical marijuana forced the Legislature and the church to the table, and the compromise there at least moves the issue forward.

The other two propositions may not be so fortunate.

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, said he plans to sponsor legislation to undo the Medicaid expansion initiative, even though the initiative would provide health coverage to an estimated 150,000 low-income Utahns. Anderegg argues expansion is a budget-buster and is unsustainable.

Matt Slonaker of the Utah Health Policy Project said he’s skeptical the Legislature will have the will to reverse “the mandate from the constituents of Utah, but certainly the coalition that has come together to support Medicaid expansion over the last six years is strong and intact and vigilant to make sure there’s no sabotage attempt on the will of the people.”

Meanwhile, legislative attorneys have identified areas of concern in the Better Boundaries initiative that could lead to legislation revising the initiative language or could be the foundation for a lawsuit challenging the redistricting commission — assuming the initiative ends up passing. National organizations opposed to the idea of a redistricting commission are also looking at challenging it in court.

This is a dangerous game that lawmakers are playing. It would be a brazen disregard for the will of the people they are supposed to represent.

Look, I’m not so naive as to suggest any of these initiatives were purely organic manifestations of voter frustration. Because of all of the high hurdles along the way in the initiative process, it takes a lot of money and in case of all three that ended up on the ballot, that money came from progressive-leaning groups outside the state.

The Marijuana Policy Project, for example, helped bankroll the medical marijuana initiative. The Campaign for Democracy based in Los Angeles was the largest donor to the Better Boundaries effort. And the same national group that backed Utah’s Medicaid initiative also helped get Medicaid expansion passed in Idaho and Nebraska.

But the Utah Constitution gives the people of the state co-equal authority to create legislation, and that is what they did. The voters are not stupid, no matter what the legislators they elect think of them, and it would take an incredible degree of gall for lawmakers to try to roll back all three of the publicly supported measures.

And they might.

So, for voters who supported the three ballot propositions, your work didn’t end when you cast a ballot Tuesday. We’re going to have to stay on our toes to ensure any “refinements” to the laws the people passed are true to the spirit of the law. If they are not, we are going to need to speak up.

And if lawmakers choose to once again not listen to the voters, the next time we go to the ballot box, it should be to vote them out.