Two out of three Utah voters believe state lawmakers listen to business, religious or special interest groups more than they do voters, according to the Utah Foundation.
The nonprofit surveyed hundreds of Utahns for its Utah Priorities Project and found that voters in March ranked the unresponsiveness of politicians as the top issue. But in July, well into the coronavirus pandemic, it had dropped to No. 6 behind health care, taxes, education, the economy and the pandemic. Some 1,150 registered voters were questioned in the March survey and 780 in July.
Republicans were split on the issue while Democrats and unaffiliated voters were more likely to agree that lawmakers don’t listen to constituents. Younger voters and those who do not identify as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were also more likely to agree.
Y2 Analytics partnered with the Utah Foundation to conduct the survey, which had a margin error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, according to Shawn Teigen, the foundation’s research director.
The foundation hypothesized that voters’ frustration with policymakers stems in part from the fact that the Legislature repealed and replaced three voter-approved initiatives in quick succession in late 2018 and early 2019. The initiatives dealt with legalizing medical marijuana, expanding Medicaid and putting rules in place to try to curb gerrymandering of political districts.
Christine Stenquist was a vocal supporter of the medical cannabis ballot measure and, unlike some who negotiated a compromise with lawmakers, she remains critical of what she sees as a hijacking of the issue.
“We have a very combative Legislature,” Stenquist said. “Every single issue that was presented into a ballot initiative form had years of frustration on the hill, begging and pleading with the legislative body to listen to us.”
There are a few groups that drown out the voices of everyone else in Utah, Stenquist said, highlighting the supermajority of Latter-day Saint members in the state Legislature as an example. “There’s a velvet rope up, and you can’t get past that.”
Health care activist Paul Gibbs said he saw years of legislative opposition to the 2018 Medicaid expansion initiative, Proposition 3.
“I’ve talked to a broad range of voters from very liberal to very conservative,” Gibbs said, “who just felt very betrayed and disenfranchised by the idea that the voters’ decisions on (the proposition) didn’t seem to matter. And there was definitely a feeling of not being listened to and that the Legislature didn’t feel accountable to voters.”
”It just makes no sense to have a constitutional right for voters to be involved, to have that co-legislative right to pass laws, to then have them immediately overwritten and changed by legislators,” he added.
Most voters agree, according to the Utah Foundation report. Only 21% of those surveyed disagreed with the premise that the Utah Legislature should not change citizen initiatives even if they are “not the best way to pass policy.” Meanwhile, 66% agreed.
Rep. Jim Dunnigan, who sponsored the bill replacing the Medicaid expansion initiative, said he doesn’t know why voters said they feel they’re not being listened to. “Constituents are the ones I listen to the most, before anybody else,” he said, adding that he wished the report had been more specific in its questioning.
Rep. Brad Daw said legislative changes to the propositions, especially when it comes to the cannabis initiative, weren’t so much a matter of lawmakers ignoring voters’ wishes as an honest attempt to come up with the best way to make those wishes a reality. Daw, who had previously sponsored a watered-down medical marijuana bill, backed the initiative replacement legislation that ultimately passed.
“What we created legislatively was a workable medical cannabis program, which was my understanding that the vast majority of constituents wanted,” he said. “I don’t feel like there was a thumb on your nose to the electorate.”
He added that the medical cannabis initiative illustrates some of the logistical challenges of passing laws by ballot measure. Unlike the legislative process, which allows for numerous opportunities to have hearings and modify or negotiate legislation, Daw said propositions are locked in stone after a certain point.
“So even if it is unworkable or problematic, you can’t do anything about it because you’d have to go back and start all over again,” he said. “It kind of means that you have to take the intent of the voter or the desires of voters and try to cast it into legislation that is actually workable and doable.”
Daw was defeated in this year’s Utah County Republican Convention and Dunnigan narrowly won reelection (by 78 votes) after initial election night vote totals showed him behind.
Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost says the Legislature should be more respectful of voters’ ballot initiatives and believes the large number of them in 2018 shows the need for lawmakers to do a better job listening to their constituents.
“The fact that we did so many of them in one year is a direct response to the Legislature not passing bills the people in the state of Utah wanted,” she said.
That’s especially true, she said, because “the bar has always been an extremely intensive, extremely expensive endeavor to even get an initiative on the ballot.”
In Dailey-Provost’s eyes, mending voters’ perception that lawmakers don’t listen to them is simple: “We should make the ballot initiative process easier and more nimble, or as a Legislature, we should just pass the bills that people want us to pass.”