Failed referendum organizers sue Utah lieutenant governor

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Steve Maxfield, chairman of The People's Right, is vowing to fight in court the Lieutenant Governor's Office rejection of an application to start a referendum to erase tax reform legislation that just passed.

A group of Utahns who failed to meet the requirements for launching a referendum to reject recent changes to the state’s tax laws have sued Utah’s lieutenant governor, seeking to have those requirements and their rejection overturned by the courts.

In a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court, Steven Maxfield — chairman of the group The People’s Right — Daniel Newby and Maxfield’s 18-year-old son Morris Maxfield argue that a state law requiring the organizers of a referendum to have voted in the past three years unconstitutionally discriminates against adults like Newby and Morris Maxfield who either did not vote, or were not yet old enough to vote, in previous elections.

The plaintiffs also argue that a state law requiring that referendum signatures meet proportional thresholds in at least 15 of Utah’s 29 counties improperly discriminates against urban counties by requiring thousands of supporters there compared to only hundreds in more rural areas.

“One Carbon County voter’s decision whether to join a referendum petition has 54 times more weight than a Salt Lake County’s [sic] voter’s decision,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit asks that the voting requirement and the county requirement be ruled unconstitutional and that the deadline for launching a referendum be extended to allow the plaintiffs to resubmit their application.

Justin Lee, director of elections for the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, declined to comment, citing the pending nature of the litigation. An attorney for the plaintiffs could not be reached for comment Monday.

Steve Maxfield indicated last week that he intended to challenge his referendum’s rejection in court, saying the state’s requirements are “like Jim Crow laws.”

A separate referendum effort, led by former state lawmaker Fred Cox, met the state’s requirements and is relying on volunteers to collect the more than 115,000 signatures necessary to qualify for the November ballot.

During a media event on Monday, that referendum effort was endorsed by all but one of the declared candidates for Utah governor. The remaining candidate, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, determined he is unable to take a stance on the referendum because his current position oversees the state’s elections, according to campaign representatives.

Both referendum campaigns were launched in opposition to a package of sweeping tax changes approved by state lawmakers in special session earlier this month.