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House panel OKs bill on rules for citizen initiatives

Will Utah become like California and Colorado, where citizen initiatives run by narrow special interests are taking over the republic? Or are Utah legislators sneakily trying to gather more power into their hands and turning a deaf ear to citizens?

The answer apparently depends on where one sits, either on the House or Senate floor or outside the Capitol.Thursday, a House committee, by a narrow 4-3 vote, advanced a bill by House Majority Whip Kevin Garn that would require citizen initiative backers to gather more votes in rural counties. The bill would increase from 15 to 20 the number of counties where petition gathers must get at least 10 percent of the signatures of citizens who voted in the last gubernatorial election.

Garn's bill is either a blessing supported by the Founding Fathers or a move by the devil, depending on who you talk to.

Garn, R-Layton, recently appeared on a local radio talk show. The host, Mills Crenshaw, "called me everything but the anti-Christ. To some, this is a very emotional issue," Garn says.

Garn and others worry that certain groups, especially environmental groups, may try to use "big money" to push citizen initiatives in Utah. In his opening remarks Thursday, Garn noted that an Idaho citizen initiative recently dealt with the minor question of bait traps, while a Colorado initiative dealt with leg-hold traps. More and more, he said, backers of citizen initiatives are paying those who gather the signatures. "Getting citizen initiatives on the ballot has become big business in California," he said.

By increasing the number of counties where initiatives must get the signatures, Garn hopes to make any citizen initiative truly a "statewide matter" in Utah.

But representatives from any number of groups, from the AFL-CIO to the League of Women Voters, said there is no real problem with citizen initiatives in Utah, where current law makes it difficult to get anything before voters.

Committee chairman Rep. Jordan Tanner, R-Provo, wondered if Garn was trying "to put out a fire that isn't burning."

Bart Grant, head of Utah Chapter of U.S. Term Limits, said since 1964 only 14 issues have made it on Utah's ballot, all failed but one; that being outlawing mandatory fluoridation of water.

Garn has his supporters. But interestingly enough, most were lobbyists, although several said they were speaking for themselves and not clients.

Reed Searle said as manager of the Intermountain Power Agency he does a lot of work in California. Citizen initiatives (there were 26 on the 1996 primary ballot) have taken over tax policy in that state, making a mess of the Legislature's attempt to have a cohesive tax policy, he said.

Rob Bishop supports Garn's bill, saying if Garn had wanted to make it harder to get issues on the ballot he would increase the 10 percent signature requirement, not the geographic distribution of where the signatures should come from.

But Grant said Garn's bill, in reality, does increase the number of signatures. That's because to make sure a citizen drive has enough valid signatures of registered voters, gatherers must obtain at least 5 percent more than law requires, sometimes more.

Increasing the number of counties from 15 to 20 means you have to get at least 5 percent more signatures in those counties, and that results in more signatures and "considerably more work," explained Grant.

Grant added that since lawmakers want to restrict the citizens' right to get a matter on the ballot, the Legislature should place any citizen initiative changes on the ballot for approval, as well. Garn's plans don't include that.

"I support the citizen initiative process," said Garn. "But we are a Republic, not a straight Democracy. We elect people to make decisions for us."

True, but League of Women Voters president Sandy Peck put it bluntly: "Sometimes citizens need a way to get around the Legislature." And citizen initiatives can sometimes be the only way.