Utah lawmakers came close to doing something bold and politically reckless this year, but at the last minute they shook themselves out of the trance and backed off. Too bad.
What they nearly did was vote to change a law that had passed by popular initiative. That would have been political heresy. Conventional wisdom holds that nothing is as sacred or as deeply chiseled in stone as the voice of the people.
But are initiatives always the voice of the people?
Here's the background: Last November, Utah voters overwhelmingly passed Initiative B, which places severe restrictions on police agencies that confiscate property used in the commission of a crime. It is a horrible law, promoted by out-of-state interests with the lie that innocent people were losing their homes to overaggressive, Gestapo-like cops.
Some lawmakers wanted to soften the impact a bit. They began by passing a law allowing them to amend any voter-approved initiative before it takes effect. But then, when the critics started a verbal assault, they beat a hasty retreat.
Think about this. Would lawmakers have any trouble passing a bill that attempted to skirt an unpopular Supreme Court ruling? Would they, if they were adamant enough about it, hesitate to override a governor's veto? Of course not. The three branches of government check and balance each other as they jockey for supremacy in the battle to do what each thinks is right. But to mess with a voter-approved initiative, even a little bit, would be like spray-painting graffiti in the Capitol rotunda.
The obvious question here is, who acts as a check on the power of the people?
The courts do, of course. But the courts act only if the people have passed something unconstitutional. They don't act if the people have done something that adds up to plain old bad public policy, or if the thing they passed is unreasonable, or if it could be made better with a little tweaking. That's where lawmakers come in.
This is becoming an issue in many states, from Massachusetts to Colorado.
In Colorado, voters have taken away the Legislature's power to tax. Even the smallest tax hike requires public approval. At the same time, voters have decided state government can't keep any surplus revenues. Against this backdrop, voters more recently passed an initiative requiring lawmakers to increase spending on public schools each year by the inflation rate plus 1 percent.
While lawmakers there try to walk a tightrope and juggle several balls, a recent Denver Post story says the initiative process has made the Colorado Legislature among the weakest in the nation. Political scientists say the state can't do long-range planning or make difficult decisions.
The great weakness of an initiative is that it cannot be tempered by reason.
When a state's elected representatives consider a bill, it has to pass through a process that includes hearings, debates and possible amendments. This tends to chip away at extremist ideas and allow representatives of each geographic district to look out for the interests of their constituents. If the governor doesn't like the bill, he often can negotiate a compromise.
But an initiative presents itself to the voter in an unalterable form. It either is approved or rejected. Once on the ballot, it cannot be amended.
Don't get me wrong. I don't want to do away with initiatives. At times, lawmakers won't do the right thing, either for political reasons or out of fear of offending a powerful special interest. When that happens, the people need a safety valve.
For example, the time has come to redraw Utah's political boundaries based on the new 2000 Census data. This ought to be done by an independent commission, rather than by politicians who make no secret about their desires to gain an advantage. Realistically, though, a commission won't come about without an initiative. Lawmakers aren't about to relinquish that kind of power on their own.
This would be a good grass-roots cause, if only someone would pick up the banner. Too many initiatives, however, are started by special interests with narrow agendas. The result can be confusing, at best; damaging, at worst.
In Utah, initiatives and referendums have a long history. Not only is this one of only 24 states to allow such a thing (nearly all of those states are in the West, by the way), it was the second state in the country to do so, in 1900.
From the beginning, lawmakers and the people have tugged and pulled at the process like a hardy piece of saltwater taffy. Frankly, neither side holds a clear moral edge. Ultimately, however, state lawmakers have to decide what is best, and do so courageously. Then the people can decide at the next election whether those folks are worthy to remain in office.
Jay Evensen is Deseret News editorial page editor. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org