Commentary: Taking the initiative — and the blows that come with it

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tiffany Malo, Pam Harrison and John Armstrong, from left, join over 300 demonstrators as they fill the Capitol rotunda on Monday, Jan, 28, 2019, on the first day of the Legislative session to rally in support of protecting Proposition 3, the Medicaid Expansion law recently passed by voters.

St. George • I moved here last year admiring the pluck of grass-roots Utahns for securing statewide votes on expanding Medicaid and legalizing medical marijuana.

They dared. I voted with them. And I’ve quickly realized that Utah legislators engage with their citizens the way a jumping cactus regards a curious dog’s nose. Stray from tradition’s path and they’ll stick you — repeatedly.

Gov. Gary Herbert and the conservative Republican Legislature smacked us around first with the special legislative session to successfully restrict Proposition 2 (what became the Medical Cannabis Act). Then, during the regular 2019 session, they curtailed the Medicaid openings in Proposition 3.

Having mollified the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other critics, lawmakers devised a raft of “we know what’s best” legislation to devalue future initiatives.

Herbert stenciled his name onto several knots of red tape – delaying implementation of initiatives until after a subsequent general legislative session, changing the signature threshold and prohibiting the introduction of initiatives with similar content in back-to-back elections.

Another new thumb-screw — that “active voters” be counted in qualifying signatures rather that the simple number of voters who participated in the last presidential election. This hamstrings unaffiliated voters who may be attracted by a single controversial initiative but otherwise might not regularly vote.

Utah can be as paternalistically overbearing and dismissive of an involved citizenry as the other side of the political mirror – California. There, I spent nearly 40 years navigating a so-called professional legislature in which the Democratic Party is sovereign, ballasted by near-endless union dollars and wish lists.

One example of Golden State imperiousness. My Fresno-based hospital system was one of several troubled by people loitering in lobbies or trying to access maternity units to abduct newborns or young children. We secured passage in 2003 of AB 936, creating the crime of “infant stalking.”

But its gravity was diminished. California prisons were overcrowded, and Democratic leaders insisted they’d only consider adding misdemeanors – no new felonies – to state law. Don’t add a crime if there’s no space to do the time, was their reasoning, like the lyrics from the theme song of “Baretta,” the 1970s detective show.

Californians use initiatives so often you’d think they were Miracle-Gro, creating a separate legislative environment. That’s as bad as the quashing of a handful of initiatives in small-government states.

Initiatives are a necessary and appropriate response when the legislative process is too slow or politicized. At some point, attempts to aggregate and maintain political power, as done in the last Utah legislative session, will be seen as an anti-democratic strategy to diminish voter engagement and broad-based election turnout.

I’ve grown tired of the whipsaw between “mainstream party” extremists. I ended my lifelong Democratic Party affiliation and have joined United Utah Party, a refreshing group of moderates from all stripes seeking open and civil discourse and policymaking. A Gallup Poll of ideology shows that 40% of Utahns identify themselves not as conservatives or liberals, but as moderates.

In coming decades, growth and diversity will compel a transformation in Utah’s current part-time “people’s” legislative format. Like California, Utah must curb air and water pollution, invest in affordable housing, improve educational funding and refresh tax policies.

I’d like to think current legislators would revisit their hostility to the initiative process, choosing instead to welcome participants as well-intentioned, complementary efforts of committed public servants and confirmation of an educated, resourceful and motivated citizenry.

They show spine in the face of clubby politics.

John G. Taylor

John G. Taylor, a former journalist and retired California hospital system executive, lives in St. George, Utah.