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Bill would delay implementation of Utah ballot initiatives

FILE - The Utah House on Tuesday passed HB349, which would make it easier for nonresident students attending Utah universities on "legacy scholarships" to establish residency.
A bill that would push back the implementation dates of ballot initiatives was made public for the first time this week.
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SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would push back the implementation dates of ballot initiatives was made public for the first time this week.

HB471 states that any voter-approved ballot initiatives raising taxes would not go into effect until the January that follows the first general legislative session after the vote, meaning such measures approved in November of this year would not be formally implemented until the start of 2020.

Laws with no effect on state taxes would take effect 60 days after the end of the first general legislative session following the vote. Implementation of laws that decrease taxes would not be pushed back.

Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, the sponsor of the bill, said it would give state lawmakers the opportunity to "do the same thing with initiatives that we do with any bill and give it time … and wrinkle out any issues, any problems" before it becomes binding.

"One of the challenges with any initiative is once you start collecting signatures, the initiative gets locked in stone," Daw told the Deseret News. "You can't change what they're signing to put on the ballot, so if there's something wrong with it … you can't fix that."

DJ Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition campaign seeking the broad legalization of medicinal cannabis in the state, criticized Daw's bill as "like moving the goal posts midgame," adding that "when we filed the ballot initiative the (law) was different."

"We find it to be poor legislation and poor timing, given the fact that the ballot initiatives are on our doorstep, and he's proposing moving the goal posts at the last minute," he said.

Schanz said that if any aspects of implementing the Utah Patients Coalition ballot initiative contradict with what is in Daw's bill, "we feel pretty strongly that the courts would be in our favor."

"We feel strongly there's precedent that the courts frown on usurping the public's ability to vote on public measures," he said.

Daw said he could only think of one part of the medical cannabis initiative that would "go into effect immediately" and be affected by his bill, which is a provision allowing a person to claim as a defense against charges of illegal marijuana use that they would have been eligible for a medical cannabis card, and therefore their behavior would have been legal, if such cards were already being produced.

"That (part of the initiative) may or may not change. At least it gives us a chance to examine it and see if it causes any problems" before it takes effect, Daw said.

The provision has drawn Daw's ire in multiple interviews with the Deseret News. He has said it would make it extremely difficult to police to enforce any marijuana laws before 2020, thus providing de facto recreational access in Utah.

Medical cannabis legalization advocates have argued a strong burden of documentation of therapeutic need would fall to a person offering such a defense.

But Daw says that ballot initiative supporters should know his bill "doesn't change them" and "it's not hostile to them."

"It gives us a chance to straighten things out," he said.

Our Schools Now, which is seeking to generate more than $700 million for public education, and Utah Decides Healthcare, which is pursuing full Medicaid expansion in the state, are two initiative campaigns that would enact tax increases if they make it to the ballot in November and are approved by voters.

Austin Cox, campaign manager for Our Schools Now, said "anything that would delay a voter-approved initiative would be very troubling."

"Our schools are severely underfunded every day kids go to school," Cox said.

The language of the Our Schools Now initiative would implement the first sales tax increase beginning in April 2019, while income taxes would bump up in calendar tax year 2019, Cox said.

"We spent numerous hours with the State Tax Commission while we were drafting this legislation … to make sure that we had rates that were reasonable and made sense and that the laws we were proposing were in concert with existing laws," he said.

Multiple attempts to reach Rylee Curtis, manager of the Utah Decides Healthcare campaign, were not successful.

Daw told the Deseret News that the longest implementation delay outlined by his bill is for measures increasing taxes because he wants to ensure any such increase "is not coming live too soon."

If those raised rates happen too rapidly, state agencies as well as businesses are left "not knowing which way to jump," Daw said.

"Again, it gives things a chance to happen in an orderly manner," he said of his bill.

Daw's bill gives leeway to ballot initiatives that establish their own applicable date in the language of the measure — but only in cases where the implementation comes after the effective date restrictions described.

HB471 is still awaiting its first committee hearing.