When one thinks of the power to make laws here in Utah, the first thing that comes to mind is normally the Utah Legislature. Understandable, as we elect legislators to the Legislature so they may legislate.
However, the Utah Constitution does not grant the legislative power only to “a Senate and House of Representatives which shall be designated the Legislature of the State of Utah.” It also grants this power to “the people of the State of Utah.”
Under the Utah Constitution, the people of Utah are equal to the Legislature in their ability to pass laws that are legally binding upon everyone in the state. These powers are exercised through different processes — the Legislature meets in session and the people pass ballot initiatives. However, the products of both the Legislature in its legislative capacity and the people in their legislative capacity are the same: law.
Utahns are currently exercising their constitutional legislative power by proposing ballot initiatives for the 2018 ballot. Ongoing attacks by the Utah Legislature to either undermine or completely invalidate the possible approval of an initiative cannot just be seen as efforts by lawmakers to influence a particular subject area. They must also be seen as attacks meant to undermine or completely invalidate the power of a co-equal partner in Utah’s legislative branch of government.
Last year, the Legislature made much ado about Gov. Herbert’s supposed usurpation of the legislative power by unilaterally making decisions that set up a framework for the special election in Utah’s 3rd Congressional District. Legislative leaders promised to address — in their view — this serious attack on their powers as an equal branch of government, something they are now in the process of doing through proposed legislation.
Efforts by the Legislature to pre-emptively undermine or reverse citizen initiatives are another serious attack that needs to be addressed. The Legislature’s hypocrisy is overwhelming when it comes to actions regarding the ballot initiatives. Legislators are absolutely indignant whenever the governor crosses some supposed line in the sand that encroaches on their power, yet they take no issue with trampling upon the power of the people of Utah, whom they represent and serve.
In legislators’ opinions, it is wrong to support raising taxes to send more money to schools, even though voters propose raising taxes on themselves. Voters do not know what they are doing by bringing medical marijuana to the state while it is still illegal at the federal level, even though we have seen surrounding states do just that. Political parties know how to choose nominees for office better than voters. And voters should not help the poor and suffering among us by expanding Medicaid unless it contains work requirements and spending caps.
In other words, overbearing parents up at the Legislature know what’s best and will not even allow the people to attempt making their own decisions affecting their collective futures. Even if well-intentioned, these actions flout the basic ideals enshrined in the Utah Constitution. Not only does the Utah Constitution allow Utahns to craft their own laws that are then binding upon themselves, but the very existence of the government itself, including the Legislature, was created by the will of “we, the people of Utah.”
The Legislature has been asked to pass legislation addressing the issues contained in the ballot initiatives for years. And for years, Utahns have waited in vain. Now, Utahns have chosen to pass legislation themselves by exercising their constitutional power. And now it’s the Legislature’s turn to wait and see what happens. Just as some laws passed by the Legislature require fixing after they go into effect, any unforeseen problem or issue stemming from the initiatives could be fixed in the same way.
It’s time for our Legislature to quit being the overbearing parent who feels they always know what’s best. Let Utahns, your constituents, take some steps on their own. Let them be free to make some decisions as they exercise their constitutional powers to govern themselves.
Chase Thomas is the policy and advocacy counsel with Alliance for a Better Utah and a graduate of the J. Reuben Clark Law School, Class of 2015.