By the end of the month, opponents of Merrill Cook's term limitation/runoff election initiative are supposed to be organized, going public and raising money.
House Speaker Rob Bishop, R-Brigham City, is taking a leading position in the opposition, but Bishop says he may not be the main spokesman. Bishop is recruiting Democrats into the cause, although Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Pat Shea strongly supports Cook's initiative and some Democrats may not join Bishop because of Shea.In any case, soon you may be hearing radio ads or even TV ads opposing Cook's initiative, which will be listed as Initiative A on the Nov. 8 ballot. Cook expected such opposition all along. Bishop's group will have to form a PIC - a political issues committee - and file a financial disclosure statement 10 days before the general election, so at least by then citizens can know who is supporting his anti-initiative cause.
No doubt Bishop will call upon the establishment-types who headed previous anti-initiative calls; the group that opposed the 1998 initiative to roll back the huge 1987 tax increases and the 1990 sales-tax-off-food initiative that Cook backed. Both initiatives started high in the polls but ultimately failed at the ballot box.
This time around, however, we're not talking tax monies that support public education, human services and other needy programs.
We're just talking politics - should the terms of congressmen, legislators, governor and county officials be limited more than Bishop's term limitation law already does? And should there be an admittedly cumbersome runoff election should no candidate in a general election get more than 50 percent of the vote?
Now, clearly Cook's runoff election provision is self-serving. Cook is running for the 2nd Congressional District this year. In 1988 and 1992 Cook's presence on the gubernatorial ballot as an independent pulled the eventual winner - in 1988 Norm Bangerter, in 1992 Mike Leavitt - below 50 percent of the votes. Cook finished third in the 1988 race, but he finished second in the 1992 race. Cook argues that he personally didn't want to amend his term limitation petition a year ago to include runoff elections. Independent Party members demanded the change, Cook says. And Cook argues he plans to come in first on Nov. 8, so a runoff election actually would hurt him.
Still, the fact is the runoff provision will help Cook, if not this year then in a 1996 independent gubernatorial bid.
But Bishop and Republicans have a huge conflict of interest, as well.
They want Cook's political career over - at least over as an independent candidate. Polls show Cook is hurting GOP 2nd District candidate Enid Greene Wald-holtz more than Cook hurts Democratic Rep. Karen Shepherd. And should Cook run for governor in 1996, he may pull Leavitt under 50 percent again. That would be 12 years that Cook has forced the incumbent governor to work from a minority position in pushing his pro-grams.
Cook's initiative does have problems. Bishop's term limitation law - passed in the 1994 session - would place term limits on Utah's congressmen only if 25 other states also limited their congressmen's terms, too. Cook's would put term limits on Utah's congressmen no matter what happened elsewhere. "We can't afford to unilaterally disarm ourselves by limiting our own congressmen when others don't," says former House Speaker Nolan Karras, who has agreed to help Bish-op.
The runoff provision may have constitutional problems, would cost counties money in putting on another election and certainly is a headache for county clerks.
But Bishop's term limits proposal - 12 years for U.S. Senate, House, governors and legislators - is also flawed. First, few legislators serve 12 years. It has no real effect. Cook would limit all officers, except U.S. senators, to eight years. U.S. senators could serve only 12. Eight years would have an impact on the Legislature.
The ultimate question may be whether Utah voters get sick of civic and political leaders banding together to defeat citizen initiatives - many of which at least start out as populist movements.
"I can see (voters) getting tired of so-called establishment types opposing initiatives," says Karras. But Cook's initiative has so many bad properties that no one is now talking about someone having to step forward, he adds.