Utah lawmakers showed no hesitation in rewriting voter-approved initiatives or in changing the rules of the game

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Faith leaders l-r Rev. Curtis Price with The First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City, Rev. Monica Dobbins with the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, Zen Buddhist Anna Zumwalt and Pastor David Nichols with Mt. Tabor Lutheran Church demonstrate in opposition to SB96 outside the Utah House chambers, Feb. 8, 2019. SB96 replaced a voter-approved Medicaid expansion initiative with a partial expansion plan that covers fewer low-income Utahns.

Three months removed from a special session that saw lawmakers swap out a voter-approved medical marijuana initiative with their own cannabis plan, DJ Schanz says he doesn’t regret working with state leaders on their replacement.

Schanz, chairman of the Proposition 2-sponsoring Utah Patients Coalition, said preliminary meetings with legislators made it clear they had the political appetite to jettison a law initiated and approved by the people of Utah.

“That appetite was very high,” Schanz said. “They had no hesitation, and indicated that they had no problem changing Proposition 2 if it passed.”

That December session was quickly followed by the 2019 general session, which opened with the relatively swift passage of a partial, and controversial, Medicaid expansion that replaced another ballot proposition enacting a more sweeping health care plan.

And lawmakers followed that action with a series of tweaks to the initiative process: delaying the implementation of successful propositions; prohibiting the same initiative campaign in back-to-back elections; mandating that the names of Utahns who sign initiative petitions be posted online; and requiring that a proposition’s ballot description begin with any proposed tax increases and its fiscal impact to the state.

Utah’s initiative process is still intact in 2019, Schanz said, but it has been weakened by legislators.

“Their ability to change or modify or even throw out a citizens’ initiative is not something that is hypothetical anymore,” Schanz said. “It’s what has been done.”

On Thursday, leaders of the Utah House and Senate said they respect the ability of voters to initiate and vote on legislation, but that an appropriate balance must be struck with the traditional legislative process.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said it is very helpful, “at times,” to know what the voters are thinking.

“You saw us tweak a couple of things,” he said. “But I would say that the process is still very much in place, and will continue. We’ll see what happens in the future.”

And Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said it would be impossible for the electorate to weigh in on each of the hundreds of issues that lawmakers consider each year.

“We need to make sure the initiative process is available,” he said, “but that it doesn’t become the norm.”

Voters approved three ballot initiatives in November, but only the third — the anti-gerrymandering Proposition 4 — remains untouched by the Legislature.

But that initiative doesn’t take full effect until after the 2020 census, at which point an independent redistricting commission would be impaneled to recommend new voting maps. And Adams said early discussions took place this year for potential legislation in 2020.

In a prepared statement, Jeff Wright, co-chairman of the Prop 4-sponsoring Better Boundaries, said his group remains grateful to Utah voters for their support in November.

“We intend to continue efforts to protect the law as passed by the voters,” Wright said, “and are pleased the Legislature respected the will of the people on Prop 4 this session.”

Utah’s partial Medicaid expansion program is scheduled to launch April 1. But it relies on a series of federal waivers to function, or could potentially revert back to full expansion if those waivers are denied. That fallback provision was added by the House in order to secure the two-thirds majority necessary for immediate implementation, which also precludes initiative backers from overturning the bill through a referendum.

“I’m very optimistic we’ll get all the waivers we need,” said Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.

The Legislature’s Medicaid plan allows individuals earning up to 100 percent of the federal poverty line to enroll, with the expectation that the federal government would cover 90 percent of the state’s costs — the share the federal government would otherwise cover under full expansion to 138 percent of federal poverty.

Lawmakers passed a similar 100 percent plan with hoped-for 90-10 funding match last year, but that law was directly superseded by the public vote on Proposition 3.

“Voters had that option on the table,” said Danny Harris, advocacy director of AARP Utah. “If they wanted to support that, they would have just voted ‘no’ on Proposition 3. But they voted to support a full Medicaid expansion that didn’t put barriers in place to people.”

Proposition 3 included a tax increase, and the initiative was cited by lawmakers during debate of the new requirement that propositions list their cost structure first on the ballot.

Harris, whose organization was part of the Proposition 3 coalition, said the campaign was transparent about the cost and value of its proposal, prominently featuring in its materials and advertisements that full expansion would cost taxpayers roughly one penny on a movie ticket.

“We did not try and hide from the fact that there was a tax increase,” Harris said. “We made it front and center that was the value choice that Utahns had to make.”

Schanz said Proposition 2 would still have likely qualified for the ballot under the new rules. But he added that some proposals could struggle to collect signatures under the new requirement to post those lists online.

“It seems a little bit like it’s an intimidation tactic to get people to stay away from signing a ballot initiative,” Schanz said.

Replacing medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion initiatives, and changing the initiative process saw particular opposition among the Legislature’s Democratic members. Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, said it is yet to be determined whether the new rules will create a chilling effect for future initiatives.

“The politics are shifting and it’s up to us as a Legislature to keep up with the desires and the sentiment of the general public,” he said. “If we don’t do that, we need to have a pathway for people to address that."