After Utah lawmakers replaced two voter-approved ballot initiatives they now go to work changing the initiative rules

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) People cast their votes in the early hours for the midterm elections on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, at the Columbus Center in Salt Lake City.

Three bills aimed at changing Utah’s ballot initiative process earned committee approval on Wednesday, setting up various debates on the Utah House floor over signature thresholds, ballot certification and the timeline for codifying propositions into state law.

And while two of the bills earned unanimous or near-unanimous committee approval, the House Government Operations Committee split along partisan lines for the third proposal, HB133, which would delay the implementation of a successful initiative until after a subsequent general session of the state Legislature.

HB133′s sponsor Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, pointed to December’s special session and the replacement of Proposition 2, the legalization of medical marijuana, saying a delay is necessary to allow lawmakers to make corrections and adjustments to ballot initiatives.

But Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, noted that the Legislature has been called into special session only once over an initiative, but is regularly called back into session each year — sometimes on multiple occasions — to correct their own legislation or to debate issues missed during their general sessions.

“This is not a crisis that occurs in any frequency,” Arent said. “I don’t see any good reasons to delay the will of the people, to make it any harder to get what they have voted for into effect.”

The committee ultimately approved HB133 on a 7-2 vote, with the panel’s Republican members voting in favor and Democratic members voting against.

In contrast, HB195 and HB145 earned bipartisan committee support, passing to the full House on votes of 9-1 and 10-0, respectively.

HB195, sponsored by Layton Republican Rep. Stephen Handy, moves up the window for initiatives to gather signatures — in order to allow more time after certification to prepare ballot materials and deal with any legal challenges — and changes the required signature thresholds from 10 percent of the votes cast in the most recent presidential election to 8 percent of active voters.

Based on current voting data, the bill would increase the minimum number of initiative signatures from roughly 113,000 to roughly 115,000, according to Justin Lee, state elections director.

“We think active voters is a better standard,” Lee said. “This would raise it by a couple of thousand [signatures] across the state.”

HB145, sponsored by Provo Republican Rep. Norm Thurston, creates ongoing tallying of initiative signatures instead of a single submission date to county clerks, while also imposing a rolling deadline for individuals who wish to remove their signatures.

Thurston said he wants to cut down on potential gamesmanship in the initiative process, such as the “sandbagging” of petitions by individuals who add their signature to an initiative only to remove their name after it’s too late for a campaign to replace their numbers.

Three ballot initiatives successfully qualified for the ballot last year. But a fourth, Count My Vote, fell short of the law’s signature threshold after a targeted signature-removal campaign by the opposition group Keep My Voice.

“I think that the process needs to be fair and balanced from the perspective of the voters," Thurston said.

Taylor Williams, of Keep My Voice, spoke in support of Thurston’s bill, but said his organization would seek an amendment to remove the rolling deadlines for signature removal. He said voters should be allowed to educate themselves and change their minds at any point, independent of when they had added their names to a petition.

“Gathering signatures is very easy,” Williams said. “Removing signatures has a much higher threshold.”

Daw praised Thurston’s bill, saying it provides consistency to both supporters and opponents of a particular initiative.

“By spreading it out along the way, that really is more fair to all sides," he said.