Commentary: Legislature will not move unless ballot measures pass

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Representatives stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in the House Chamber of the Utah State Capitol Building in Salt Lake City, Tuesday January 30, 2018.

Like most legislators, I’m skeptical about citizen initiatives. They are chainsaws when it comes to making law. In contrast, the legislative process takes a scalpel to our Utah Code. This year we have on our election ballot a question on public education funding and three propositions. And, despite my concerns about the initiative process, I’m voting yes on all of them with little hesitation and encourage you to do the same.

The ballot question asks if Utahns are willing to raise the state fuel tax 10 cents a gallon to better fund public education and maintain local roads. This was a compromise legislators made with Our Schools Now. If the fuel tax increase passes, Utahns would pay slightly more at the gas pump than most states, but our children would receive about $375 million more in education funding each year.

Proposition 2 legalizes the medical use of cannabis. I think there are a lot of unanswered questions about medical marijuana. But more than half the states in our country now allow for medical use of marijuana. And the reason they do is because research is proving that it is effective in addressing a number of medical problems. I agree with critics that parts of the initiative are poorly drafted. But, as I outline below, there is a better way of dealing with that problem than to vote Proposition 2 down.

Proposition 3 calls for real Medicaid expansion. It will provide better access to affordable healthcare for over 100,000 Utahns and bring back hundreds of millions of dollars each year in federal taxes we have already paid. To me, it’s not a close call.

Proposition 4 creates an independent redistricting committee to provide greater assurance that voters pick their elected officials rather than the other way around. You can’t ever completely eliminate the role of politics in drawing district boundaries. But having served on the 2011 redistricting committee, I know from experience that Proposition 4 is a move in the right direction.

The reality is that a yes vote on these initiatives is necessary because the Legislature has turned a deaf ear to Utahns on these issues. I have heard some people say that we need to vote Proposition 2 down and have the Legislature come back and pass a medical marijuana statute in the 2019 session that does not have the flaws found in the initiative.

Here’s the problem with that approach. The Legislature will take to heart whatever the public vote is in November on the public education ballot question and the propositions. If the propositions pass, the Legislature will not likely overturn public will in the next session. It’s too politically risky. But the same is true if these issues are voted down. Don’t plan on seeing increased taxes for public education anytime in the future if that ballot question fails. And you won’t see medical marijuana in any meaningful form in the foreseeable future if Proposition 2 gets a negative tally. Likewise for Medicaid expansion and anti-gerrymandering legislation.

So, should you vote yes on the ballot question and the propositions if you generally agree with them but have heartburn about some details of them? Yes. If the propositions pass they will have no greater force and effect than any other statute the Legislature passes. And the Legislature can, and will, take reasonable actions to fix obviously problematic aspects of any of the propositions. In short, the Legislature will take its scalpel to a proposition that passes and perform minor surgery where necessary while also honoring the overall purpose of the proposition and the intent of the voters in passing it.

These are all important issues. And they are issues about which, I believe, the Legislature has been ignoring the desires of most Utahns. If scare tactics, disinterest or looking after our own immediate financial interests cause us to vote the ballot question and the propositions down, it will have a negative impact for years. Educating Utah’s kids; dealing more effectively with the opioid crisis, chronic illnesses, and getting access to affordable health care; and ensuring we have more responsive and competent government all ride on voting yes on the ballot question and the propositions.

Most of all, your vote matters. Make sure your voice is heard. Cast your vote. It makes a difference! One of our state House races was decided in 2016 by three votes out of over 17,000 votes cast. Make sure you are registered and vote in this year’s election!

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Brian King (D-Salt Lake City) listens during a House Judiciary Standing Committee meeting at the Utah Capitol Tuesday, January 30, 2018.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, is the minority leader of the Utah House of Representatives.