Utah House approves suite of bills changing the ballot initiative process

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) People cast their votes in the morning for the midterm elections on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, at the Riverton Senior Center. The election included three ballot initiatives, all passed by voters. Two already have been repealed and replaced by the Utah Legislature.

In back-to-back-to-back votes, members of the Utah House approved a series of changes to the way initiatives qualify for the ballot and are enacted into state law.

The trio of bills, if enacted, would create a rolling tally of petition signatures and signature removals, move up the initiative timeline and ultimately delay the implementation of any successful proposition until after lawmakers have an opportunity to correct, adjust or repeal the proposal in a general legislative session.

“The best lawmaking comes when it’s a deliberative process,” said Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, who sponsored the delayed implementation bill.

Daw’s bill, HB133, was approved on a 50-20 vote, with four Republicans joining all 16 House Democrats in opposition.

Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, said the Legislature should be respectful of the voice of the people when an initiative earns a majority vote of the state. And any flaws contained in an initiative, she said, can be addressed in a special legislative session rather than delaying implementation of a voter-approved law.

“We are more than capable to address issues as they come,” she said.

In 2018, three initiatives qualified for the ballot and were ultimately approved by a majority of voters. But only one of those initiatives — the anti-gerrymandering Proposition 4 — remains in state code after the other two were replaced first during a special session in December and second through legislation last month.

In addition to Daw’s bill, the House voted 58-6 for HB195, which moves up the window for initiatives to gather signatures — in order to allow more time after certification to prepare ballot materials and resolve 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.

The third bill, HB145, was approved by the House in a 50-21 vote. HB145 would extend criminal penalties for fraudulent collection of petition signatures, while creating an ongoing tally of petitions submitted to county clerks and a corresponding rolling deadline for individuals who wish to remove their signatures.

Rep. LaWanna Shurtliff, D-Ogden, spoke in opposition to the bill, saying it conveys to the public that lawmakers don’t want to hear from them or consider their initiatives, but prefer to legislate their own way.

“This bill, to me, just seems like we’re making it more difficult again,” she said.

Rep. Norm Thurston said his intent in HB145 is not to impose greater difficulty on the initiative process but to close loopholes that have allowed “gamesmanship” of the system. He said his proposed changes could make the process easier for initiative sponsors, as they would have an up-to-date count of their verified signatures.

“They will have better information earlier in the process about how far they have to go,” he said, “how close they are to the goal line.”

All three bills will now move to the Senate for consideration. Another bill, requiring that an initiative’s proposed funding sources and estimated impact on state coffers be listed first on the ballot, has already passed the Senate and on Monday earned the approval of the House Government Operations Committee in an 8-2 vote.