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Don’t ruin the essence of Proposition 4

The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.
The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — On any of the 45 days the Utah Legislature is in session, you can sit in the gallery of either the House or Senate in Utah’s Capitol and, as some observers put it, watch the sausage being made.

Actually, the real sausage-making, the part that wouldn’t endear you to sausage-eating (to wear out the metaphor), happens in closed caucuses or other rooms away from the spotlight, but the final product gets molded and formed into shape in full view.

On Monday, for example, Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, listened as two Republican senators told him their objections to one of his bills. Then, after a quick meeting among the three, Kitchen proposed an amendment that pushed his bill another step toward passage.

This, many lawmakers will tell you, is why they don’t like citizens initiatives. No sausage.

Voters take an idea and vote yes or no. No amendments allowed. The pig goes directly from slaughter to the table.

It’s the main reason why this year’s Legislature appears to be on the verge of doing what some would consider politically unthinkable — rewriting the third of three citizen-led propositions voters approved in the 2018 elections.

In sports, you would call this a hat trick or a three-peat. If it happens to citizens initiatives in Utah, you call it a reason to vote people out of office, except that this would mean voting for someone other than a Republican.

The great irony of the 2018 election is that the same Utahns who voted yes to medical marijuana, Medicaid expansion and the creation of an independent redistricting commission also voted to elect lawmakers who dislike all those things.

Lawmakers rewrote the medical marijuana measure (with the help of interest groups for and against it) shortly after it passed, and last year they rewrote the Medicaid expansion measure to, as they explained it, keep runaway costs from harming the state budget.

Now, efforts are underway to rewrite the boundary commission law. Leaders in the Senate have talked about tweaking it to avoid some constitutional problems. Leaders in the House have gone as far as to mention the R-word, “repeal.”

The aim of the boundary commission initiative was to take the job of creating political boundaries mostly out of the hands of the Legislature, where a solid Republican majority goes to great lengths to craft boundaries that ensure Republicans keep getting elected.

Boundaries are redrawn every 10 years after the census publishes data about who lives where. Republicans will complain there simply aren’t enough Democrats to form many districts that would favor them. But many residents of Salt Lake City and other Democratic pockets complain they lack real representation because of weirdly drawn districts that dilute their votes amid GOP majorities.

It doesn’t always work. Despite drawing a map that includes much of Utah, Juab and Sanpete counties to go along with portions of Salt Lake County, the 4th Congressional District is currently held by a Democrat.

With the 2018 vote, Utah joined 18 states that use some form of independent commission to take the boundary job away from lawmakers. The initiative created a seven-member commission and divided its appointment process such that any final decision had to include some sort of political consensus. The commission also would have had to follow sometimes vague rules that kept neighborhoods together and maintained some sort of “partisan symmetry.”

It also gave the Legislature the final say. Lawmakers could change the commission’s recommendation, if they provided a reason, thus maintaining the power the state constitution gives lawmakers to draw boundaries, albeit with a healthy dose of bad publicity.

As a general rule, public sausage-making is good for democracy and for sound public policy. At the same time, however, lawmakers must respect that the state constitution also allows for citizens initiatives and referendums, effectively making the people a fourth branch of government and giving them power to make changes politicians refuse to do.

If lawmakers tweak Proposition 4, they have an obligation to retain the spirit of what people said they wanted. In other words, don’t change the boundary commission to make it a rubber stamp of the Legislature’s wishes. Fix whatever constitutional issues may exist without ruining the essence of what the initiative created, which is to emphasize fair representation.

In other words, don’t let the sausage overwhelm the recipe. That may be a tall order without the threat of any real voter retribution in November.