SALT LAKE CITY — Three-quarters of Utahns back term limits for state lawmakers and the governor in new poll findings that are good news for the United Utah Party’s efforts to launch a citizens initiative to put the issue on the November 2020 ballot.
Only 7% of Utahns agreed with the statement term limits were “a bad idea that put inexperienced people in office and prevent voters from reelecting capable legislators” in the UtahPolicy.com poll, while 16% said it “depends” and 3% didn’t know how they feel about the issue.
The poll for the online political news source was conducted by Y2 Analytics from July 31 to Aug. 6 among 987 registered Utah voters participating in the Utah Political Trends Panel. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
The size of the support for terms limits, described in the poll question as being seen by some as “a good idea that keep public officials from staying in office too long and losing touch with the concerns of average voters,” came as a surprise to UtahPolicy.com Publisher LaVarr Webb.
“I do think there is a lot of cynicism about politics in general.”
“I do think there is a lot of cynicism about politics in general,” Webb said, especially in the current political climate, dominated by the often dysfunctional landscape of Washington, D.C.’s, divided Congress and unpredictable President Donald Trump.
United Utah Party Chairman Richard Davis, a former leader of the Utah County Democratic Party, said the poll results are similar to what United Utah organizers found when they did their own survey after starting the new party in 2017 as a home for moderate Republicans and Democrats.
“It just reinforces what we’ve been saying for some time, which is that term limits are certainly popular with not only the rest of the nation, but also Utahns,” Davis said. “Our initiative is going to give them the chance to put that general sentiment into action.
The initiative, filed with the Utah Elections Office in July, would limit the governor, lieutenant governor, state auditor and state treasurer to eight consecutive years in office, and members of the state House and state Senate to 12 consecutive years. It would not apply to Utah’s congressional delegation.
The term limits would not apply to anyone in office as of Nov. 2, 2020. That’s the day before the state’s next general election, when the initiative would be on the ballot if the United Utah Party is able to gather the more than 115,000 valid voter signatures distributed among at least 26 of the 29 state Senate districts by next February.
Davis said the initiative is intended as “a good compromise” that allows elected officials to stay in office long enough to get something done and doesn’t prevent them from running again for a particular post after taking a break.
Required public hearings throughout the state on the initiative are currently underway, with the Wasatch Front area public hearing set for Aug. 31 at 10:30 a.m. in Rooms B and C of the Millcreek Community Library, 2266 E. Evergreen Ave., in Millcreek.
Petitions should begin being circulated a week or two later, Davis said. The party, which also considered other issues for an initiative, including opening primary elections to all voters regardless of party, is recruiting volunteers on its website, unitedutah.org, to help collect voter signatures.
Webb said he believes the term limits initiative has a good chance of being passed by voters and becoming law — if it makes the ballot. He said it’s difficult to collect the names needed to qualify for the ballot relying on volunteers, but hiring professional signature gathers costs some $750,000 for a statewide initiative.
“The problem might be getting on the ballot,” said the veteran of the Count My Vote initiative effort to open up the primary election process. “I think it’s an issue that obviously most Utahns support, term limits, but it’s not a top priority for most people. So it might be difficult for them to raise enough money to do it.”
A previous citizens initiative to institute term limits was preempted by state lawmakers, who passed a term limits law in 1994. But less than a decade later, just before longtime legislators would have been affected, the law was repealed by the 2003 Legislature.
Earlier that same year, a Deseret News/KSL-TV survey found 76% of Utahns didn’t want the term limit law repealed.
The sponsor of the 2003 repeal, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, wasn’t ready to say how lawmakers might react if voters end up putting term limits back in place next year.
“That’s a wonderful question. ... I’d say there are a lot of ‘ifs’ in there,” he said, later making the point that the Utah Constitution “vests in the people and the Legislature equal power to make laws. I’m not going to second-guess what the future holds with term limits.”
Bramble said term limits are misunderstood.
“If people have a problem with government, term limits don’t solve that problem. In fact, they tend to exacerbate it.”
“If people have a problem with government, term limits don’t solve that problem. In fact, they tend to exacerbate it,” he said, shifting power to bureaucrats and lobbyists who continue to build their influence as elected officials come and go. “They’re the ones that basically run government.”
He also said there are legal questions about imposing term limits through a law rather than amending the qualifications to hold offices spelled out in the state constitution, as other states have done. Fifteen states have term limits, mostly enacted in the 1990s.
Webb said lawmakers would have the power to reverse or change the term limits law that would be created if the initiative passes, something they would be able to take their time doing since no one in the Legislature would be affected until 2032.
“I don’t think the Legislature would quickly repeal it or change it. It wouldn’t impact anyone for a number of years, so they would let it stay on the books,” he said, at least until the impact loomed. “That’s exactly what happened last time.”
In the 2018 election, voters approved initiatives legalizing medical marijuana, expanding Medicaid coverage and establishing an independent redistricting commission to help draw new congressional, legislative and school board district boundaries following the census.
Lawmakers have already replaced the medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion programs passed by voters and are expected to take on the redistricting commission before the next census in 2020. Davis said he hopes term limits will be treated differently by the Legislature.
“They did this before and then claimed that they could repeal it,” the United Utah Party chairman said. “We think showing them in an initiative that voters want it will make it less likely that they can come back and say, ‘We can repeal this.’”