Tribune editorial: Petition backers deal away citizens’ intentions

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Scott Anderson, president and CEO of Zions Bank, speaks in support of Our Schools Now as it formally launches its tax increase initiative during a press event at the Capitol on Tuesday, June 6, 2017.

The dust has settled, and once again a large effort to engage Utah residents in lawmaking has been traded away in a private negotiation with legislators.

Our Schools Now’s effort to raise more than $700 million for our least-funded schools in the nation has morphed. In its place is a plan to raise about half that amount through gasoline and property taxes so more money can go to schools.

We’ve been here before, and with some of the same players behind Our Schools Now. It was called Count My Vote, a 2014 citizens petition for a ballot measure to end political parties’ lock on primary elections. Like Our Schools Now, it was pushed by business leaders who thought the Legislature’s positions didn’t reflect the more moderate mainstream of Utah.

In that case, the settlement negotiated out of the public eye was Senate Bill 54, a deal that allowed both candidate petitions and party conventions as paths to a primary ballot. That turned out to be anything but a settlement. After years of litigation by the Utah Republican Party over a bill Republican legislators passed, SB54 apparently still needs voter affirmation through a ballot measure this November.

So now we have another negotiation behind closed doors that yields far less for schools than the original petition proposed. The gas-tax deal also has to go before voters in November for approval, so Our Schools Now apparently will throw its money and influence at persuading people to vote for it.

To be sure, the larger tax increase in the petition was hardly a sure thing. It was doing well in public opinion polls, but we’re a long way from November.

Could Utah afford it? Was it the right mix of taxes? What guarantees were there money would be spent in ways that produce the most benefit? It would have been a healthy and vigorous debate culminating with voters answering the question for themselves. And it would have affirmed the role of a First Amendment right of petitioning the government.

Instead, we got another deal, and the tens of thousands of people who thought they were part of a true paradigm change were reduced to being leverage in talks they couldn’t join. Without the funding and support of the people who launched it, the original petition has little hope of continuing.

The petition-killing deals may be political reality, but their repetition leads to cynicism over the intentions of initiative backers. In fact, it feeds the belief that money has an outsized influence in what should be a grassroots process.

There are other initiatives in the works, and none of those were negotiated away with legislators. Citizen lawmaking isn’t going away, but it does lose some credibility when citizens have to be skeptical of power brokers bearing petitions.