Utahns might have thought they witnessed the last hurrah on Thursday for the passionate people who vehemently oppose the new state flag that lawmakers approved last year.
But now, those people have filed a federal lawsuit against the state, claiming that its process for allowing citizen ballot initiatives is unconstitutional.
At a Thursday legislative hearing on a bill that would have repealed the state’s new flag, Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, told the anti-flag zealots to cool it. The time had come to move on. She urged them to channel their efforts to more important things, like the fight against pornography.
That isn’t going to happen.
In fact, a fight against Utah’s initiative laws may resonate well beyond the flag issue.
Utah lawmakers, ever worried about direct democracy and becoming like California (where ballots often are stuffed with initiatives), have indeed made the process hard. A bill currently making its way through Capitol Hill would make it even harder, requiring a 60% majority for any measure that raises taxes.
The flag opponents have circulated an initiative petition. They have a Feb. 15 deadline for gathering enough signatures of registered voters, spread over 26 of the state’s 29 Senate districts. The lawsuit, filed by a political action committee known as Are You Listening Yet, says the effort has gathered about 91,622 signatures, “but 12,596 have been officially rejected” by the lieutenant governor’s office. Nearly 135,000 signatures are required.
The complaint notes there are three distinct deadlines signature gatherers face and says, “All of the deadlines, individually and collectively, work to severely limit signature gathering.”
The complaint also challenges the state’s rule that paid signature gatherers be given an hourly wage instead of a set amount for each signature gathered, and that they must wear badges identifying them as being paid.
A victory might be music to the ears of the leaders of other special interest groups that would like easier access to the ballot in Utah. Whether it’s good for the state would remain to be seen.
Utah was the second state in the nation to allow citizen initiatives and referendums, back in 1900. Lawmakers have tried since then to do all they can to limit the process, arguing that the public is best served by bills that go through the legislative process of amendments and hearings.
A court victory by the anti-new-flag people may even be short-lived. State lawmakers always get the last word. Voters approved three initiatives in 2018, but lawmakers later altered all three. Why couldn’t they do so again?
And even if the new-flag opponents get something on the ballot, victory is not assured. A poll by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics in October found 41% of Utahns in support of the new flag, with 37% opposed and 22% undecided. Only 23% said they were strongly opposed.
Still, this lawsuit appears to be their best, and last, chance.
HB436, sponsored by Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, would have repealed the new flag and required that any future change to Utah’s flag be subject to a vote of the people. It failed Thursday in the House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee. Or, rather, the committee voted to simply move on to the next agenda item. That means it could be brought back again, but that seems unlikely.
That committee meeting featured a lot of the breathless hyperbole that has characterized the anti-new-flag movement.
People quoted Karl Marx and claimed the new flag was a “woke” conspiracy to erase the state’s history. One young woman in a video presentation read a poem she had written that included imagery of the state’s old flag being ripped down and trampled. One person said it was akin to Texas adopting the Mexican flag.
Those with more reasoned arguments said the matter should have been subjected to a vote of the people.
All this emotion is difficult to understand. The law that established a new flag specifically keeps the original flag, as well, as a legal symbol for the state. It can be flown anywhere for any reason.
Regardless, the issue will live on, for a while, at least.
The state constitution establishes initiatives as an alternate form of lawmaking in Utah. It also makes them subject to “the numbers, under the conditions, in the manner, and within the time provided by statute.”
If a court decides the state was unreasonable in imposing those limits, it could have far-reaching effects for Utah’s future.