Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that ballot initiatives are a bad way to write laws, and that he personally opposes a proposal to legalize medical marijuana.
But the initiative should be allowed to move forward, he said, with a public debate and vote in November.
“If you get the signatures on [the petition], let’s have the debate,” Herbert said. “Why are we afraid?”
Herbert’s comments came during his monthly news conference, hosted and broadcast live by KUED. Other topics included his former membership in the National Rifle Association, national anthem protests by professional athletes, and the breakdown of negotiations with Salt Lake City leaders over a proposed inland port in the city’s northwest quadrant.
Medical marijuana is one of several initiatives awaiting certification for the November ballot after gathering more than 113,000 signatures from voters across the state. But opponents have attempted to thwart those efforts by encouraging voters to rescind their signatures and, more recently, by suing the state to stop the certification process.
Herbert said it’s likely some court action will be necessary to resolve ballot access. But he added that “it becomes unfair” that a small group in a single area can undo a statewide signature-collection campaign.
“I think our initiative petition process needs to be rethought,” he said.
Without a special session to resolve lingering concerns over a planned international trading hub in Salt Lake City, Herbert said the state is left with only one option: to move forward as required by current law.
That means convening an oversight panel in June, with members appointed by the various cities, counties and state entities described in a bill that passed during the waning hours of the 2018 legislative session.
“That port authority needs to be organized and put together so we can function,” Herbert said. “And that is exactly what we will do.”
Herbert said he had asked Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski if she supported the creation of the port in her city, and whether she was willing to partner with the state on its operations, to which the mayor responded with an “emphatic” yes.
But after what he thought of as a compromise proposal came together, Herbert said, the mayor and city leadership were not on board.
Herbert said he is sensitive to the requests for local control, but the inland port is of such significance to the state that it requires broader governmental scrutiny.
“There are some times when the state says ‘You know what? For the good of the whole, we’re going to have to take charge and bring people together’,” Herbert said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
City leaders have expressed concern over their loss of authority over the inland port — which is roughly one-third of Salt Lake City’s total footprint — including the ability to collect taxes and impose regulations on storage and environmental impact.
On Thursday, Biskupski tweeted that her team is open to the creation of the port, but is concerned about the protection of local communities.
Herbert said he’s supportive of an “all of the above” discussion on gun rights and public safety.
He said he and most people agree that there should be significant and comprehensive background checks required for gun purchases, and ownership restrictions based on factors like mental health, criminal backgrounds and domestic abuse. But he’s unsure about where specific lines should be drawn on questions like volume of permissible ammunition purchases or firearm types.
“Is eight [bullets] enough? Is 12 too many?” Herbert said. “Those are discussions and debates we ought to be willing to have.”
Herbert said he has been a member of the National Rifle Association in the past, but that he does not believe his membership is current. That lapse in membership is not due to an ideological disagreement, he said, but a difference of opinion over the gun lobby’s sometimes “heavy-handed” tactics.
“We don’t have to keep pushing the envelope in every aspect here,” he said.
Asked about a recent school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, Herbert stressed the need for additional mental health and counseling services in schools. He praised the National Rifle Association for its lobbying efforts on Second Amendment rights, and added that it’s “too broad a brush” to attribute mass violence to the organization.
“I don’t want to lay at the feet of the NRA the problems that we have with school shootings,” Herbert said.
Asked about a new policy by the National Football League that requires players to either stand for the anthem or wait in the team’s locker room, Herbert remarked that he grew up in an era when everyone placed their hand over the heart.
He said he has been disappointed in players, who are adored by Americans and earn “tons of money,” who do not show respect and appreciation for the flag and nation during the anthem.
“[The country] may not be perfect, but by golly compared to any place else in the world, “ he said, “where would you rather live?”