Gehrke: The Legislature shouldn’t meddle with voters who have taken matters into their own hands

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

All over the Capitol, lawmakers are scrambling to put together bills that could undercut initiatives that proponents have spent months trying to get onto the November ballot.

Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, has perhaps the most overt, a bill that would directly nullify the $700 million tax increase a group of prominent business leaders calling itself Our Schools Now is seeking to bolster Utah’s woeful public school funding.

Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, said a medical marijuana initiative is badly flawed, and he has legislative attorneys drafting a scaled-back alternative.

“If the [marijuana] initiative passes, I’m not sure our state agencies could implement it the way it’s drafted,” he said. “I opened the bill file because I wanted other options, because we know these initiatives are coming through and we want it to be done and done right.”

Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, is sponsoring legislation that is a last gasp for the Republican Party’s strident delegates to retain the power to choose party nominees — a bill that would upend a previous legislative compromise and that directly contradicts the Count My Vote initiative that was revived to ensure that candidates collecting signatures may also get on primary ballots.

And there is talk among Senate leaders, at least, that the Better Boundaries initiative to create an independent commission to recommend equitable legislative districts might run afoul of the Utah Constitution.

You could forgive the supporters of these ideas if they feel like they’re being torpedoed.

“We’ve come to them year after year after year, asking for help, and they’ve slapped our hands down when we were begging for crumbs,” said Christine Stenquist, president of the group Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE. “Now they want to come in and say, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing. We can do it better.’ They’ve lost that opportunity.”

She’s right there, and she is right across the board.

Lawmakers have had years to address these concerns, which have had broad public support and have been important to voters.

As an example, in recent Tribune polls, 76 percent support legalized medical marijuana and 56 percent of voters are in favor of the Our Schools Now measure.

Yet all lawmakers could muster are halfhearted baby steps.

Look, Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, is absolutely right when he says the initiative process is not the ideal way to make laws. It’s clunky and rigid. The language of the ballot initiatives can’t be refined or massaged as concerns arise or as unintended consequences are identified.

“The initiative process is a good process, but, by far, the better process is the legislative process,” he said.

Which is fine, but when the Legislature completely fails to do its job, then the initiative is the only way remaining for voters to be heard.

Maybe there is room for compromise. Schultz, to his credit, has been working with the Our Schools Now organizers in hope of steering a substantial amount of cash to Utah’s schools without using the initiative.

Perry’s bill, as it was described to me, wouldn’t go nearly as far as the ballot initiative, but he said he hopes it’s something that the Legislature would be willing to pass and that would draw a clear line between medical and recreational use.

His bill would have a somewhat narrower set of conditions, copying the list from Minnesota’s law, which covers things like cancer, HIV, glaucoma, Tourette’s syndrome, various seizures and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The program would be rolled out over three years, with cannabidiol (CBD) oils available in the first year; in the second year, products with a 1-to-1 ratio of CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high, would be allowed; in the third year, products with a 2-to-1 THC-to-CBD ratio would be permitted.

There would be no “whole-plant” access, and patients couldn’t smoke marijuana.

It’s possible that there’s room for compromise and that both the lawmakers and the initiative supporters can declare victory.

But I’m inclined to side with Stenquist. She wants the Legislature to back off, let the initiative run its course, come back in 2019 and work together to fix any problems that may arise.

That makes a lot more sense, not just for the marijuana initiative, but for all of the ballot measures. That way, the public gets to use its voice and, perhaps, in the process, send a message to lawmakers that voters will take matters into their own hands when their elected officials fail to act.