Citizen-led ballot measures may be harder to pass under ‘power-hungry grab’ by Utah Legislature

Lawmakers want to require a 60% vote to pass ballot measures that raise taxes in Utah. Right now, a majority vote is required to enact a ballot initiative.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Jason Kyle stands as the Utah House of Representatives considers an amendment to a resolution to show support for Israel during an Extraordinary Session at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. Kyle is proposing two pieces of legislation to make it more difficult to pass citizen-led ballot measures that increase taxes.

The most common way to make laws in Utah is through the Legislature. Every year, lawmakers debate and pass hundreds of bills during their whirlwind 45-day session, not to mention special sessions to address urgent issues. Citizens also have the constitutional right to propose and pass laws through ballot initiatives.

And during this session, lawmakers are proposing new rules to make some of those citizen-led efforts more difficult to turn into law.

A pair of bills sponsored by Rep. Jason Kyle, R-Huntsville, would require a 60% “yes” vote from citizens on any ballot initiative that raises taxes or creates a new tax, while most other ballot initiatives only need a majority.

HJR14 seeks to amend the Utah Constitution to require a ballot initiative that results in a tax increase to get 60% approval from voters to pass instead of the current majority requirement. A companion bill from Kyle, HB284, specifies that any ballot initiative that increases taxes must say where the money will come from to pay for the tax increase.

If HJR14 is approved by two-thirds of lawmakers in the House and Senate, the proposed amendment to Utah’s Constitution will be added to the ballot in November. If a simple majority of voters approve the amendment, then HB284 goes into effect, cementing the 60% threshold in law.

Kyle raised the specter of “out-of-state special interests” descending on Utah to have their way with state laws through the initiative process to justify raising the bar for ballot initiatives.

“This will bring more people to the table. It’ll put a check on out-of-state special interests and give them pause, so maybe they’ll come up with good policy that will benefit the whole state,” Kyle said during a House Government Operations Committee hearing on Tuesday afternoon.

Utah’s ballot initiative process is already an obstacle course involving the collection of hundreds of thousands of signatures and a labyrinth of stringent election rules and tight deadlines just to qualify for the ballot. Only 26 ballot initiatives have qualified for the ballot since 1952, and seven of those were approved by voters.

Currently, organizers must collect signatures from 8% of the active voters in the state. They must also meet that 8% requirement in 26 of Utah’s 29 state Senate districts. In recent years, they also have placed several restrictions on the use of paid signature gatherers.

Utah law already requires backers of an initiative that results in a tax increase to include a statement in their proposal specifying which taxes are being raised and by how much.

Critics of the proposal say the new hurdles on tax-related initiatives only apply to citizen-led efforts, while lawmakers are conveniently exempting themselves.

‘A power-hungry grab for the Legislature’

Sheryl Allen, board member for Better Boundaries, the group behind the independent redistricting ballot initiative that was watered down by lawmakers, served as a Republican in the Utah House of Representatives for 16 years. She says the proposed changes are so restrictive that lawmakers wouldn’t dream of shackling themselves with similar rules.

“The power right now is not equitable between the people and the Legislature,” Allen said. “This is a power-hungry grab for the Legislature. And it is helping in no way. The people of the state of Utah have the constitutional right to legislate and this difficulty is a threshold that should never be considered.”

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, suggested a 60% threshold for the legislature to pass a tax increase was not needed because the legislature would be very reluctant to even consider a future tax hike.

“Utahns generally believe in limited government, free markets, at least my constituency I’ve heard from,” Adams said. “Government is limited in many ways, but it should be limited in the amount of money that we extract from them.”

Even if a ballot measure that raised taxes were to be approved by 60% of voters, there is nothing to prevent lawmakers from changing the new law however they see fit.

In 2018, voters approved three ballot measures to legalize medical cannabis, expand Medicaid coverage and create an independent redistricting commission. Before those measures could take effect, lawmakers made wholesale changes that drastically altered or gutted those proposals.

Kathy Biele with the Utah League of Women Voters said it’s arrogant for lawmakers to increase the burden on citizens who want to make changes to state policy while maintaining the status quo for themselves.

“The Utah Constitution allows us to be co-equal in our right to make legislation. That is not happening now,” Biele said during a news conference Wednesday. “The people are smart enough to read the ballot initiative. The legislators seem to think they’re not. I think this is insulting to our citizens.”

During a news conference with legislative leaders, Adams vigorously defended lawmakers’ ability to alter citizen-approved ballot initiatives because the legislative process is more involved than an up or down vote at the ballot box.

“We do a good job up here. But a lot of the bills that we’re running this year are tweaking things that we did last year. If you get something on the ballot, you just have to vote it up or down. You can’t amend it. You can’t substitute it,” the Senate president said. “Sometimes there are mistakes made or things that need to be tweaked. If we didn’t have that ability to come in and tweak those initiatives, it would leave the state in a very difficult position.”

This would not be the first time that Utah voters have approved raising the threshold for passing certain ballot measures. In 1998, Utah voters approved Prop. 5, which requires a two-thirds vote from citizens to approve a ballot initiative dealing with hunting and wildlife issues.