Gehrke: Utah ballot initiatives require millions in spending, often from outside the state, so are they really democratic?

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

In concept, citizens changing the law through a ballot initiative is pretty much the pinnacle of democracy — a safety valve for voters to take matters into their own hands when legislators are unresponsive to the public’s wishes.

As with many things, however, the reality isn’t nearly so clear-cut.

The Utah Legislature, believing they are best-equipped to set policy and fearful of the chaos that could ensue if the masses had their way, have made getting a proposal on the ballot incredibly difficult — supporters have to gather more than 113,000 signatures from voters spread around 26 of Utah’s 29 state Senate districts.

Relying on volunteers is impractical and professional signature gathering firms can charge up to $12, sometimes more, per signature, meaning a successful initiative demands a lot of money, a lot more than you or I have (unless “you” happen to be Gail Miller, the richest person in the state, in which case: Hi, Gail. Thanks for reading).

Utah is not unique when it comes to the expense of getting something on the ballot. In 2016, spending on 162 ballot measures nationwide exceeded $1 billion, according to Ballotpedia, which tracks election issues. That meaning the average amount spent on a ballot measure exceeded $6 million.

As a result, these initiatives end up relying on a small group of immensely wealthy supporters and, in some cases, a handful of special interest groups from outside the state.

Take the “Utah Decides Healthcare Act,” which asks voters to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid to cover about 130,000 low-income Utahns. The group pushing this idea has raised more than $2.5 million and all but $70,000 of that came from The Fairness Project.

The Fairness Project is a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that in 2016 pumped millions into ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage in Washington, Colorado, Arizona and Maine. All four initiatives were successful. The next year, they were back in Maine, backing an initiative that made Maine the first state where citizens voted to expand Medicaid.

Utah’s medical marijuana initiative is also relying heavily on large donations, including nearly $250,000 from the Marijuana Policy Project, the largest organization working on marijuana policy reform issues. The Utah Patients Coalition initiative proponents also got $50,000 from Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps — a crunchy all-natural soap maker who has given to marijuana initiatives and progressive causes nationally.

Not all the money comes from outside the state, however. Closer to home, the libertarian think tank The Libertas Institute gave $110,000 and a combined $173,000 was donated by the video production company Our Story and the group Pass The Balanced Budget Amendment — both of which share the address of Bully Pulpit, a political consulting firm led by Chuck Warren, who also gave $5,000.

And of course, there’s Count My Vote, which is being bankrolled by $100,000 each from Miller, former Gov. Mike Leavitt and meat-packing mogul John Miller, with $200,000 from developers Kem and Carolyn Gardner. (Leavitt, Gardner and Miller are all among Mitt Romney’s inner-circle).

All this money sloshing around the process could make one cynical. I’ve written about the corrosive marriage of money and policy for years and I’ve seen how big dollars can tarnish good intentions, especially when the real source isn’t fully transparent, as is the case with many big donor groups.

But there are a few reasons not to despair.

First, this is not new. There has been big money behind initiatives in Utah in the past and we haven’t seen a flood of ballot measures. The National Education Association spent more than $4 million to repeal private-school vouchers; in 2004, the Nature Conservancy was the main backer of a million-dollar open space initiative that failed.

The expense means initiatives remain a last resort — that safety valve mentioned at the top. And, ideally, at least, there is an opportunity for opponents of any initiative to make their case directly to voters — often armed with as much or more money as the proponents.

In 2002, a group backed by former Salt Lake Tribune publisher Jack Gallivan mounted an initiative to raise taxes on Envirocare (now EnergySolutions) and a pair of plucky attorneys named Deno Himonas and John Pearce (both now Supreme Court justices and Pearce is Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce’s husband) got Utah’s initiative law struck down as too onerous. In the end, Envirocare and the business community fought back aggressively and beat back the effort.

Which dovetails with the most important safeguard in all of this — us.

These ballot initiatives are ultimately tapping into the same vein of voter frustration, that the Legislature has been unwilling or too slow to address important issues. And come November, we’ll be the ones deciding which initiatives pass and which fail.

And in that sense, the money spent now is really to give voters a voice that has been ignored for too long.