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Guest opinion: The Utah Legislature is committed to giving voters what they asked for

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

In November 2018, Utah voters passed three ballot initiatives in support of creating a medical cannabis program, expanding Medicaid and establishing an independent advisory commission to make redistricting recommendations to the Legislature. In all three cases the voters have gotten, and will get, what they asked for.

Making that happen, however, isn’t always as simple as it may seem.

All three initiatives came with legal complications that required modifications. My colleagues in the House and Senate worked with initiative supporters to: align with existing legal realities, consider impacts to state finances, and prevent lengthy, expensive legal challenges.

As a member of House leadership, I have been actively involved in the discussions with supporters of each measure as we ironed out the legal wrinkles to the satisfaction of all parties. Let me be clear: Whether lawmakers supported or opposed any of the individual propositions, our sole focus has been and will continue to be enacting the will of the people.

Failure to resolve each initiative’s legal issues could result in challenges in court, potentially delaying implementation. That’s not a productive path forward, nor is it the right thing to do for Utah taxpayers. Collaboration and transparency are crucial as we work to make the policies supported by the people fit with existing legal realities. Take a look at each one individually and you will see that, including necessary changes, citizens are getting what they asked for.

Proposition 2 — medical cannabis initiative:

Lawmakers began discussions with both supporters and opponents of medical cannabis before Election Day, anticipating a divisive campaign and a close vote. All of the parties involved worked out a compromise that was passed in a special session less than a month after voters went to the polls. Subsequent changes to the law were made when counties raised concerns about jeopardizing federal funding by distributing a federally banned substance. Utah voters expressed support for making medical cannabis available to those who will benefit from it, with the proper controls in place to prevent recreational use. The legal issues were resolved and citizens got what they asked for.

Proposition 3 — Medicaid expansion initiative:

Utah voters expressed their support to extend Medicaid coverage to more Utahns whose income is at or below 138% of the federal poverty line. The funding mechanism — an increase in sales tax — was insufficient to cover the cost of expansion. While Medicaid was designed to help the most vulnerable obtain health care, in reality the initiative incentivized more spending on able-bodied adults than on those in greatest need. Legislators began working through potential compromise scenarios to expand coverage in a fiscally responsible way. During the 2019 general session, a compromise bill was passed that included some limits on eligibility as well as a work requirement, enrollment caps and changes to the funding mechanism.

Asking voters if they want something but not asking them if they like the price tag makes it easier to pass. As a state, we live within our means. Necessary changes were put in place to ensure we could extend coverage to more of those in need without compromising our state’s financial well-being.

Proposition 4 — independent advisory commission on redistricting initiative:

With the U.S. census taking place this year, lawmakers are tasked with redrawing district boundaries for Utah’s representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as for state legislative and state school board districts.

After a year of negotiations, the Legislature has committed to fully funding the independent commission’s work, at a cost of $1 million. We agreed the independent commission should be able to establish whatever standards it wants for the purposes of doing its work. The commission is now responsible for making recommendations for consideration by the Legislature. The ultimate responsibility for redistricting decisions lies with the Legislature. The people voted for an outside perspective and we are committed to ensuring the independent commission is able to deliver.

Creating good public policy is never easy. Each change has a ripple effect, often with far-reaching ramifications. When the public speaks out through the initiative process, it is important for policymakers to be responsive. Vilifying legislators as we work to preserve the will of the people while staying within existing law erodes public trust in elected officials and doesn’t align with reality. Utah legislators have made necessary improvements to flawed initiatives while finding a way to give the people what they asked for.

Francis Gibson is the Utah House majority leader, representing Mapleton in Utah County.