Robert Gehrke: Utah voters just proved that ‘all political power is inherent in the people’

Robert Gehrke

There’s trouble brewing. And it’s you, Utah.

For so many years, it was far too easy to feel ignored by the Utah Legislature, which always did whatever it wanted and never suffered any consequences when that was at odds with public sentiment.

So what could you do? Nearly all of the 104 lawmakers are from such safe districts, it didn’t matter. You grumbled and griped, but ultimately you took it.

It was discouraging and led too many people to just give up.

That changed in an unprecedented way in 2018. After years of legislative inaction on issues that significant majorities of Utahns wanted, we took matters into our own hands and turned out in massive numbers to vote for initiatives that expanded Medicaid, legalized medical marijuana and demanded political boundaries that don’t rob us of our representation.

Yes, even after that show of will from voters, legislators didn’t take long to rewrite the initiatives, but the point remains — Utah has expanded Medicaid and medical marijuana is legal.

But the lesson must not have stuck, because lawmakers once again defied public sentiment last month when they passed a massive, convoluted and highly unpopular tax bill that cut education funding and raised the sales tax on food.

In response, a small group of Utahns filed a referendum, seeking to gather signatures in an attempt to repeal the bill. It was bold, gutsy and — I thought — had almost zero chance at succeeding.

That’s because — even though three out of every five Utahns opposed the bill, according to a poll for The Salt Lake Tribune — legislators have erected massive barriers to the initiative process and the referendum process is even harder. The 2018 initiatives succeeded largely because they had big financial backing and organizations behind them.

This recent referendum push was a purely grassroots effort with none of those advantages. It made gathering more than 115,000 signatures, dispersed across the 29 counties in a short timeframe over the holidays when nobody is paying attention to politics, seem like a fool’s errand.

But the fools, it turns out, are pretty resourceful. Thanks in large part to the support of Harmons grocery stores, they pulled it off, and late last week the Legislature and Gov. Gary Herbert — who had gone all-in supporting the tax plan — had to fold and agree to repeal the law.

It was a stunning victory for voters and a stunning reversal from the state’s political leaders.

My favorite line of the Utah Constitution says this: “All political power is inherent in the people.”

That sentence embodies the birthright of our democracy. It goes on to say that “all free governments are founded on [the people’s] authority for their equal protection and benefit, and they have the right to alter or reform their government as the public welfare may require.”

More than any time I can recall, Utahns are altering and reforming their government. So why stop now?

Today marks the opening of the 2020 session of the Utah Legislature. Most sessions have their own special type of chaos and sessions held in election years tend to be typically fraught.

And we all have issues we care about — education, air quality, mental health treatment, personal privacy, livable communities, liquor laws, affordable housing, criminal justice, and on and on.

In normal years, citizen activism can feel frustratingly futile. But after this tax debacle, the people, perhaps more than ever before, have the full attention of lawmakers, which means now, more than ever before, there is an incentive for you to speak up.

There is also power in numbers, so find your like-minded group — whether it’s the ACLU or Action Utah or the Libertas Institute or Utahns Against Hunger or even the Utah Eagle Forum, if that’s your thing — that can help navigate the system and amplify your voice.

Make sure that for these next 45 days of the 2020 session they hear from you on the issues you’re passionate about and — most importantly — make sure that you can’t be ignored anymore.

Because now is no time to stop being trouble.