Lawmakers seek option to alter impact of ballot initiatives

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Facing the possibility that voters could change laws on several hot-button issues, Utah lawmakers are considering giving themselves the option to change any voter-approved measure before it goes into effect, a move that comes as lawmakers around the country work to limit the effects of ballot initiatives.

Utah voters could have the opportunity to consider an unusually high six ballot initiatives, ranging from medical marijuana, school funding and Medicaid expansion, making at least one lawmaker uneasy.

“I’m nervous about the concept of empowering the citizenry to intervene so swiftly and rapidly as to even derail the deliberative and systematic processes of the Legislature,” said Republican Rep. Travis Seegmiller of St. George.

Opponents argue there’s already a high bar to get questions on the ballot and creating an approximately six-month delay for any successful measures would undercut the will of the voters.

“I just have concerns with … moving the goalpost in the middle of the game,” said Chase Clyde with the Utah Education Association, which supports an initiative to boost annual education funding by $715 million annually through tax increases.

The state House of Representatives will soon vote on the proposal to delay implementation and let lawmakers make changes to the voter-passed laws before they go into effect. They can already change any law once it’s on the books.

Republican Rep. Brad Daw said his plan wouldn’t undermine the will of the voters, but rather deal with practical challenges. Some ballot initiatives could conflict with laws passed by the Legislature, he said, while others might need money that’s not yet in the budget.

“All we’re saying is, if you pass your initiative in November we want to have a chance at the Legislature, for practical reasons — possibly for political reasons, but largely for practical reasons — to be able to correct any errors, to fix our budget,” said Republican Rep. Norm Thurston of Provo.

Under current state law, if voters approve a ballot initiative it goes into effect after the election results are certified, usually in late November. Daw’s plan would delay the effective date until May, when most other laws passed by the legislature go into effect.

Daw said there are a “freakishly high” six ballot initiatives that groups are trying to get on the ballot in November. State law requires more than 100,000 signatures on petitions from all over the state, and initiative backers will face their deadline to see if they can get on the ballot next month.

No initiative has passed in nearly 20 years, Daw said.

Utah lawmakers say they don’t want to undercut the will of the voters, and Gov. Gary Herbert said he’d be reluctant to sign anything that would go against a law that passes through the ballot box.

But nationally, legislatures from the Dakotas to Maine have brushed aside voter measures and some have taken steps to hamper people’s ability to get on the ballot. Since the 2016 election, lawmakers in at least 10 states have floated or approved proposals that would make it harder for voters to pass laws or change their constitutions.

Republican lawmakers say the changes are needed to neutralize the impact of special interests, especially those from outside the state.

In Ohio, a Republican lawmaker who proposed tougher requirements to get on the ballot pointed to efforts on recreational marijuana and prescription drug prices when he said Ohioans were sick of outsiders “trying to buy our ballot.” In South Dakota, the House speaker wants to ban out-of-state political contributions for ballot questions.

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