A new power broker emerged on Utah’s Capitol Hill in 2018: voters armed with popular ballot initiatives

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Friends and family of 16 Utah servicemen who died in 2017 are honored in the Senate Chambers at the State capitol in Salt Lake City Friday Feb. 16, 2018. Both houses of he Legislature honored them with a citation and a moment of silence.

This year’s Legislature saw a different kind of political player driving much of the agenda: Utah’s 1.5 million voters.

Six ballot initiatives threatened to convert those voters into a super-Legislature that could enact proposals popular in polls, but which have languished on Capitol Hill.

Those measures could raise taxes dramatically for schools, fully expand Medicaid, legalize medical marijuana and change election laws.

Those proposals loomed over lawmakers the entire session and prodded them to act, even if it was to offer weaker alternatives, seek replacements or, at times, to create obstacles.

“Sometimes we are a little tone deaf, I think, in listening to the will of the people. That spawns initiatives. And when you get that kind of a loud roar, people pay attention,” Gov. Gary Herbert said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Governor Gary Herbert in his Salt Lake City office, Thursday March 8, 2018.

That dynamic was most obvious with the Our Schools Now initiative that sought to raise taxes for education by more than $700 million a year, the governor said. “Clearly Our Schools Now made legislators step up and say, ‘Wait a minute, maybe we need to be a little more generous in education.’”

A compromise was reached to essentially drop that ballot drive in exchange for a legislative tax increase package to raise roughly $375 million more annually for schools. While the plan is considerably less than what Our Schools Now aimed for, it is a surer bet. Predicting outcomes at the ballot box — especially when it comes to tax increases — is always risky.

“That’s a pretty impressive feat to me,” Herbert said of the deal struck in the session’s final days. “If it’s not record amounts of money [for schools], it’s going to be near record amounts.”

Part of the compromise is putting a non-binding question on the ballot about raising the gasoline tax by 10 cents a gallon to help schools. If voters favor it, lawmakers say it would be a political imperative for them to act.

In another case of an initiative kick-starting action, legislators pushed expansion of Medicaid far beyond what they have previously supported.

The House, where former Medicaid proposals went to die, actually started HB472 to seek federal waivers to allow expanding coverage to about 72,000 low-income Utahns at no cost. But supporters of the Utah Decides Healthcare ballot initiative say their plan would cover twice as many residents, about 150,000, with a sales tax increase.

So RyLee Curtis, director of the group, said the campaign is moving full speed ahead to allow voters to decide in November.

The same is true of yet another ballot drive, one to legalize medical marijuana.

Lawmakers passed bills to allow terminally ill patients with six months or less left to live the “right to try” cannabis, and allowed cultivation for that limited purpose.

These steps are far beyond what might have been imagined a few years ago — but look to initiative supports like a stumble.

BYU student Joseph Walker was named the winner of the 2017 Utah Regional Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA) with his company, OmniEarth, an organic fertilizer company based out of Provo, Utah. A sample is pictured here. He said "The largest impact this product is making is in the medical marijuana market. He has formulated an organic fertilizer specific for this industry to optimize the growth and potency of marijuana plants for certified growers. He was photographed in the Life Sciences Building on the Brigham Young University campus in Provo Monday, Nov. 20, 2017. (Steve Griffin/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

“The legislation that was passed can barely be described as medical marijuana,” said Connor Boyack, a medical marijuana initiative backer.

“Yet again the Legislature has proven it’s unwillingness to take anything but a small step when the public has consistently shown itself ready to take a big leap and help thousands of patients soon rather than waiting several years.”

In another policy area, legislators let die at midnight a bill to give voters a clear choice this year on election laws affected by initiatives.

It would have allowed them to decide whether to allow candidates to qualify for the ballot only through the caucus-convention system — which was the law before 2014 — or allow both that and/or qualifying by collecting signatures.

A ballot measure by Count My Vote would cement into law dual paths to a party’s nomination. But if it was defeated or failed to qualify for the ballot, HB338 would have mandated going back to using only the caucus-convention route — which the Utah Republican Party has been seeking to accomplish through lawsuits.

“I don’t know how we can argue against giving people the opportunity to have a vote on this issue,” said Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, sponsor of the bill, argued earlier.

Legislators sometimes balked at the prospect of 1.5 million voters invading their lawmaking domain — and it prompted a few memorable comments.

Some of those popped up in debate on HB471 to delay implementation of voter-approved initiatives for months to give the Legislature time to tweak them or coordinate them with other laws.

“I really don’t understand why we persist in antagonizing the people of the state of Utah. It’s so obvious that we are sticking a finger in their eye,” House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, protested. “We’ve got six initiatives that are going forward and we just can’t resist in the middle of the process putting another obstacle in place.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Brian King makes a comment about the Sex Education bill, HB 286, in the house of representatives, Thursday, March 1, 2018.

In earlier committee debate on the bill, newly appointed Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George, said, “I’m nervous about the concept of empowering the citizenry to intervene so swiftly and rapidly as to even derail the deliberative and systematic processes of the Legislature.”

After public backlash, Seegmiller later voted against the bill in the full House.

HB471 went on to quietly expire in the Senate without a vote.

Besides tussling over voter initiatives, the part-time Legislature battled for more power against the full-time governor — a fight touched off last year when Herbert refused to call the Legislature into session to set rules for a special congressional election.

So lawmakers passed a constitutional amendment that — if approved by voters in November — will allow the Legislature to call itself into special session.

Another bill would take away the governor’s power to appoint a replacement when a U.S. Senate vacancy occurs, and give that power to political parties. Also party delegates — not voters — would select party nominees in special elections to fill vacant U.S. House seats.

The measure won House approval but was not acted on by the Senate.

Herbert said he was looking at vetoing many of the separation-of-powers bills.

“We think the Legislature tries to take on the role of the executive branch, and they probably are concerned about me meddling in their responsibilities, too. But that’s what we call the ongoing healthy tension between branches of government.”

House Speaker Greg Hughes said, as did Herbert, that despite the tussle, lawmakers and the governor still managed to work well together this session.

“It has not been contentious in any way with the executive branch,” Hughes said. “We leave room for differences of opinion. We know that’s inherent to the process we have.“