Passing a voter initiative or referendum will be harder under bill approved by the Legislature

Lawmakers argue they are trying to protect Utah policy decisions from out-of-state groups.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) This Jan. 15, 2020, file photo shows volunteer Ron Mortensen at the City Creek Harmons grocery store helping gather voter signatures to put a referendum on the ballot overturning the tax reform package passed by the Legislature. The package included an increase on the food sales tax that was unpopular with grassroots Utahns.

Utah lawmakers who have felt the pressure of citizen initiatives in recent years took final action Thursday to make it harder for members of the public to overrule their decisions or enact policy changes by popular vote.

The state Senate voted 22-7 to pass a bill that would block companies from paying signature gatherers per name — and would instead mandate that these workers receive an hourly rate. The measure, HB136, would also require these signature gatherers to wear badges that say they’re receiving money for their efforts and offer information about who’s paying them.

It also states that the lieutenant governor and county clerks must post information online telling people how they can remove their signature from a petition if they’ve changed their minds.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, who presented the bill in his chamber, told his colleagues that out-of-state interests and “cantankerous groups” have run initiatives in Utah in recent years. And he said that moneyed organizations from outside Utah shouldn’t be able to set the state’s policy.

“I think this would cause people to think before they sign,” Stevenson, R-Layton, said. “And sometimes, that’s really important.”

The bill’s restrictions would not apply to candidates who are trying to collect enough signatures to win a spot on the ballot, he said.

Utah lawmakers already have made it quite difficult to obtain enough signatures to put an initiative or referendum up for a statewide vote. Organizers must gather signatures equal to 8% of the total number of active voters in the state and must also reach the 8% threshold in 26 of Utah’s 29 state Senate districts.

Senate Democrats objected to further restricting a process that empowers people to enact laws when the Legislature doesn’t seem to be listening to them.

Sen. Derek Kitchen pointed out that state lawmakers debated medical cannabis for many years without making significant progress — and only approved a program in 2018 after a citizen initiative forced their hand. If not for that, Kitchen said, state legislators might still be arguing over the issue.

Utah voters in 2018 also passed Medicaid expansion and an initiative calling for an independent redistricting commission to prevent gerrymandering in the state — also issues that had repeatedly been rejected by lawmakers. In all three instances — medical marijuana, Medicaid expansion and redistricting — the Legislature repealed and replaced those voter-approved laws with proposals of their own design.

Kitchen said he couldn’t support a bill that would curb voters’ ability to do something in response to legislative inaction.

“I just think that when we’re putting stricter guardrails around the residents of this state gathering and trying to make their voices hears on critical policy issues, that we’re out of line,” the Salt Lake City Democrat said.

On the other hand, Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, argued that the HB136 would level the playing field by treating paid signature gatherers as lobbyists.

When Utahns are exercising their ability to pass laws by referendum, they’re acting as citizen legislators, he said. And paid signature gatherers are doing the job of lobbyists, trying to sway these lay lawmakers to their point of view, he said.

The most recent referendum effort was aimed at overturning the Legislature’s massive tax reform bill. Organizers last year successfully collected enough signatures to put that issue on the ballot, prompting lawmakers to repeal their tax package before it ever took effect and before the public voted.

Now that it has gained passage through the Legislature, HB136 will head to the governor.

Alliance for a Better Utah, a progressive government accountability group, denounced the Legislature’s decision to toughen the requirements for signature gathering and urged Gov. Spencer Cox to veto the bill.

“Utahns already face an incredibly high barrier when it comes to getting initiatives on the ballot, which is why it requires so much money for a ballot initiative to be successful,” Lauren Simpson, the alliance’s policy director, said in a prepared statement. “If lawmakers were sincere in their desire to reduce the money spent on future ballot initiatives, they would be making it easier, not harder, for Utahns to exercise this right that is guaranteed under the Utah Constitution.”