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Lawmaker mulls bill to address Utah ballot initiative 'concerns'

FILE - Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, speaks regarding his bills HB195 and HB197 during the House Health and Human Services Committee meeting during the Utah Legislature in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018.
FILE - Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, speaks regarding his bills HB195 and HB197 during the House Health and Human Services Committee meeting during the Utah Legislature in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Brad Daw is considering introducing legislation that would address "concerns about what we're seeing" with the recent proliferation of ballot initiative campaigns in Utah.

Six separate ballot initiative campaigns are seeking signatures to put their measures before voters in November, tackling issues from fighting gerrymandering to broadly legalizing the medicinal use of cannabis.

Daw, R-Orem, said he is troubled that the campaigns are taking advantage of what was "designed to be a grass-roots process" and are "morphing into something (they) were never intended to be."

"Let's say, in general, there are concerns with what we're seeing. … We're seeing something we've never seen before," Daw told the Deseret News.

The lawmaker believes the use of big money has allowed at least some of the initiative campaigns to put on the misleading aura of a populist grass-roots effort in their endeavors to persuade Utah voters to sign on.

"The people running the (Utah Patients Coalition medicinal cannabis) initiative seem to have a whole boatload of money to spend on PR, signature gatherers and all that stuff," he lamented last month to the Deseret News. "I've got me and the Utah Medical Association (in opposition). We're not rolling in cash."

Daw has a bill request open called "initiative and referendum amendments," but none of the language being considered for the legislation has thus far been publicly distributed.

He declined to elaborate on how the bill would specifically address his concerns about this year's uptick in ballot initiative campaigns. But when asked whether he seeks to restrict the use of paid signature gatherers, Daw shot down that idea, saying doing so would create constitutional issues related to freedom of speech.

Daw was also asked whether his legislation could have some effect on the ballot initiative campaigns seeking signatures this year.

"Probably not too directly," he responded. "I can't see that we could do much there, or even that we want to do much."

Daw said he is also unsure whether the bill arising from his request will be drafted and heard before the end of this year's legislative session.

"(It) just depends on what we see the need is," he said.

A different measure sponsored by Daw, HB225, would make reforms to county and municipality initiatives and referenda, including raising signature requirements for those measures. HB225, which was held in committee this week by the House Government Operations Committee, does not apply to statewide initiatives, Daw said.

It wasn't clear whether similar changes to signature requirements as seen in HB225 could also be a part of legislation from Daw pertaining to statewide voter measures.

Austin Cox, the campaign manager for the Our Schools Now ballot initiative that would increase sales tax by 0.45 percent in 2019 to generate more than $700 million for public education in Utah, said he is in the dark as to what might be in Daw's bill. Speaking generally, however, he said, "I would caution against making (ballot initiative) laws more difficult because they're already difficult and require real public support."

Cox said the requirements for putting a measure before voters in Utah "are probably the most difficult in the nation."

"You've got other states that don't require as rigorous of a signature threshold. You have to have representative support throughout (Utah), you've got to hold public hearings, you've got to avoid the new legislation that's coming from the Legislature," he said. "I think the initiative laws in Utah are already very rigorous."

On learning of Daw's bill request, Utah Patient Coalition campaign director DJ Schanz warned that any measure making it more difficult to get voter initiatives on the ballot would be "doing the public a great disservice."

"This is not an easy process," Schanz aid. "It's not a (frequently) used process because it is so difficult, and only in extreme circumstances when there is overwhelming public support for an issue is it even possible to make it onto the ballot."

The most recent initiative that qualified for the ballot in the state was Utah Clean Water Initiative 1 in 2004, a measure that ultimately was voted down, the lieutenant governor's office said last year. A referendum — which strikes down a law rather than creating one — made the ballot and passed in 2007, when voters nullified school voucher legislation.

Schanz believes "a psychological piggyback effect" may be helping to open the floodgates this year as initiative campaigns decide the time is ripe to turn to Utah voters. He also said that the "very, very costly" process of getting an initiative on the ballot may be somewhat mitigated this year because "there may be an economy of scale" factor at play.

"A number of us are using the same signature gathering company, and it's made it a little more cost-effective than it would be," Schanz said.

Schanz took issue with Daw's assertion that the Utah Patients Coalition is operating with a "boatload of money," and said there is no doubt the push to broadly legalize medicinal cannabis in the state is grass-roots.

"To date, we've raised over $400,000. That's by no means rolling in dough, and the vast majority of that is going to signature-gathering. … Any illusion that we're rolling in dough from outside money, it's completely false. This has been a grass-roots movement from the get-go, and we're proud to say that."

Schanz also said the Utah Patients Coalition has more than 140,000 signatures gathered as of this week. That's far more than the 113,000 total signatures needed to qualify to be on the ballot in November.

But initiatives must also reach certain signature thresholds in at least 26 of the state's 29 Senate districts, and collection efforts will be ongoing likely for about another week, according to Schanz.

Brandon Beckham, director of the Keep My Voice ballot initiative campaign, said he would welcome legislation that addresses what he sees as abuse of the process in which voters have very little knowledge about what they're agreeing to when they sign a petition.

"We're trying to educate people at the door about what they sign," Beckham said of his campaign.

But he said he has reason to believe that other campaigns skirt that process and explain as little as possible, calling it "a very ridiculous process" and "not a way to do law."

"A lot of times … there's just no real education about it. There's just no real factual stuff" explained at the door, Beckham said. "I don't like the idea that some people who don't like the rules in the state can so easily manipulate them."

Keep My Voice and Count My Vote are competing ballot initiatives this year, with the former seeking to remove the ability of political candidates to get on a political party's primary ballot through signature-gathering. Under changes to Utah law passed in 2014, that path to the primary ballot is guaranteed as an option in addition to the caucus and convention system.

The 2018 Count My Vote ballot initiative campaign is seeking to reinforce the dual path to the ballot allowed for under the current system.

Beckham said he would support lawmakers exploring how to tighten the screws on how thoroughly an initiative must be explained by campaigns in order for signatures they obtain to be considered valid.

"It's very easy to manipulate. You can get signatures whether you're a candidate or whether you're an initiative, and the reason is most voters just aren't that involved," he said. "We would be very supportive of having further requirements on the initiative process … (in) a way that facilitates further public involvement for people to actually engage in the bill."

Richard McKeown, executive chairman of the Count My Vote campaign, told the Deseret News that Utah currently has "among the most onerous processes in order to get on the ballot."

"Frankly, I think it should be hard," McKeown said. "I don't have complaint with it being hard because of the philosophy that I believe legislative action is better."

But initiatives are a valuable last resort, he said, "in circumstances where the Legislature finds it awkward, or they're unable, to act."

"I think that's what happened this year is there (are) a bunch of folks who've concluded they can't initiate action through the Legislature and therefore they have proposed initiatives," McKeown said.

While he didn't comment specficiallly on Daw's initiatives bill, McKeown said he's "not sure what you could do to make it harder."

"You've (already) got a significant requirement that … you get signatures in 26 of 29 Senate districts. (That's a) pretty significant geographical spread," in addition to a high overall signature requirement, he said.

Rylee Curtis, manager of the Medicaid expansion ballot initiative campaign called Utah Decides Healthcare, declined to comment on Daw's bill request, saying she didn't know enough about what could be in it in order to do so.

Better Boundaries — a ballot initiative campaign that seeks to fight gerrymandering by establishing an independent redistricting commission — also declined to comment.