Tribune Editorial: Utah constitutional amendments — Five decent ideas and two really bad ones

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Jake Andergg, R-Lehi, told the crowd he was "shocked" that the Utah constitution still contained words banning slavery "except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted" hadn't already been removed on Tuesday. A coalition of politicians, religious leaders and civil rights activists are urged Utahns to pass Amendment C on the ballot to remove old wording in the state constitution, Sept. 22, 2020, that they say still allows slavery as a punishment for crime.

Utah is still enough of a democracy that the voters have to approve any proposed changes to the Utah Constitution. The Legislature is not empowered to do so on its own. And, in the case of two of the constitutional amendments that are on this year’s general election ballot, that’s a good thing indeed.

There are seven proposed changes to Utah’s basic charter of government at the end of the ballots that most of us have received in the mail. Five of them are basically housekeeping details, clarifying the process of state government or bringing the language into compliance with 21st-century (or, maybe, 20th-century) standards. Voters should approve those.

Two of them, though, are really bad ideas and the voters should reject them soundly.

Taking the amendments, and The Salt Lake Tribune’s recommendations on how to vote, in alphabetical order:

* Amendment A — For. This proposal basically does a search and replace on the Utah Constitution, hunting down the few remaining places where it refers to “men” or a “wife” and changing them to properly gender-neutral language such as “person” or “spouse.” This amendment should be approved.

* Amendment B — For. This also is a reasonable move to clarify what the Utah Constitution means, in this case the qualifications for being elected to the Legislature. As it sits, those qualifications include being a U.S. citizen, living in the district you would represent and being at least 25 years old. But the constitution doesn’t say if candidates have to meet those standards when they file, when they are elected or appointed or when they take office. Amendment B would clarify that it means when a person is elected to office or appointed to fill a vacancy. This change should be approved.

* Amendment C — For. Who knew that the Utah Constitution still allows for slavery? Well, only as a punishment for a crime. It makes sense to remove the part of the constitution that allows “slavery or involuntary servitude” as punishment for a crime. This amendment should be approved.

* Amendment D — For. Many cities in Utah sell water to residents of other cities or unincorporated areas, and have done so for decades. The problem, apparently, is that the constitutional power of those cities to do that is pretty vague. Amendment D would make it clear that, while cities are still not allowed to sell or give away their water rights, they can set up boundaries, rules and rates for supplying water to customers outside their municipal limits. This amendment is worth approving.

* Amendment E — Against. This proposal would elevate “the right to hunt and fish” to a constitutional level of protection. That’s unnecessary. It would also make it state policy that hunting and fishing “shall be the preferred means of managing and controlling wildlife,” which is a particularly horrible idea. Utah’s wildlife management habits, particularly its irrational fear of apex predators such as wolves, are already a sorry example of biological and ecological illiteracy. There is no reason to enshrine such foolishness in our basic charter. This amendment should be rejected.

* Amendment F — For. The Utah Constitution now mandates that the annual regular session of the Legislature shall commence on the fourth Monday of January and run for 45 working days. This amendment would allow the Legislature to pick a date, as long as it was sometime in January, and retain the 45-day limit. This is a small change and mostly an internal housekeeping matter within the reasonable purview of lawmakers. It should be approved.

* Amendment G — Against. The Utah Constitution protects one of the state’s most important duties, providing a system of public and higher education, by mandating that every dime raised though the state income tax be spent for those functions. Lawmakers have long chafed at that restriction, and Amendment G would loosen the rules by adding programs for children and the disabled to the allowed uses of income tax revenue.

Those are worthy causes, to be sure. But on its face Amendment G would mean less money for an already underfunded educational system, and a companion bill passed by the Legislature that promises to both maintain school funding and save for a rainy day is just a pledge that a future Legislature could easily break before the schools and the taxpayers knew what hit them.

Amendment G is based on a trust of the Legislature that its members have not earned. It should be rejected.