Lawmakers Shun Bill to Ease Citizen Referendums | Buzz Blog

Lawmakers Shun Bill to Ease Citizen Referendums

House defeats bill to make it easier to repeal new laws.

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Rep. Fred cox, R-West Valley City.
  • Rep. Fred cox, R-West Valley City.
A proposed bill that would have made it slightly easier for the people of Utah to repeal laws passed by the Legislature was narrowly defeated in the House today, after some lawmakers argued that the U.S. founders feared direct democracy.

Under current Utah law, if a citizen wants to organize a referendum to repeal a contentious law passed by the state Legislature, they must file their intent to do so within five days of the end of that year’s legislative session. However, the Governor has 20 days to decide whether or not he is going to sign or veto the law, so a citizen or a group could end up spending thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars getting ready to gather referendum signatures, only to have the governor veto the bill anyway.

HB 11, Referendum Amendments, from Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley City, would have extended the notification deadline from five days after the end of the session to five days after the governor signs or vetoes the law. It was defeated on the House floor by a vote of 38-32.

“Whether we like it or not,” Cox told his fellow representatives, “our constitution gives the people of this state the ability to make or repeal laws [through the referendum process]. A referendum is still an extremely difficult task, since [a citizen or group] would only have about 35 days to gather the required 100,000 signatures from all over the state.”

Citizen referendums are very rare in Utah, thanks to the stringent signature requirements which must be gathered within a few weeks from every county in the state. The last one to be successful was the 2007 referendum that repealed the Legislature’s new law creating school vouchers. In that case, national organizations on both sides of the issue poured millions of dollars into Utah, trying to influence voters one way or the other. The voucher law was repealed by citizens by 61 to 39 percent. Since that time, lawmakers have made it more difficult to get a referendum on the ballot, by increasing the number of signatures required to get it on the ballot, and where those signatures must come from geographically.

While the 2007 voucher referendum had huge and well-funded organizations to help it gather signatures, Cox says he wants to make sure the system is still accessible for smaller citizen groups who may not have that sort of political machine behind them. “We need to think of the grassroots movements who don’t have a lot of money and let them find out if their referendum is going to be made moot because of the governor’s actions [before they spend all that money],” Cox says.

Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, disagreed, arguing “The founders had a fundamental distrust of democracy. So while I appreciate that the so-called citizen’s veto is written into our constitution, this bill does nothing but make that easier to do. And if we want to see how well governing via ballot propositions goes, we only need to look at California.”

The first vote on the board was from House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, himself—an unusual move given that historically the Speaker of the House, except in cases where they feel very strongly about a bill, either doesn’t vote or votes last so as not to influence representatives who don’t want to be seen as opposing the powerful speaker.

Hughes tells City Weekly that he voted against the bill because he thinks groups wanting to repeal a law would be tactically wiser to start the petition process as early as possible, rather than waiting until the last minute. “If [a citizen] has a bill that you don’t like, and you would like it not become law, the quickest way is having the governor veto it,” Hughes says. “If you can go to the governor and show him how you’re already collecting signatures, it’s an arrow in your quiver to get him to veto.”

Hughes says that if you are needing extra time, “you’re already losing. I think that you should be focused on no later than five days after the legislative session.”

“I was disappointed in the outcome,” Cox says. “Citizen referendums and initiatives are a right under our [Utah] constitution. I think it just needs to be more fair."

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