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Is Utah’s voter-approved Better Boundaries redistricting initiative headed for repeal?

Speakers says leaders not ‘willing to do something we think is irresponsible’

Numerous people rally over redistricting in the Rotunda of the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City Monday, Oct. 3, 2011.
Numerous people rally over redistricting in the Rotunda of the state Capitol in this file photo.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Backers of the Better Boundaries initiative passed by voters in 2018 warned Friday lawmakers appear ready to undo the new independent redistricting commission and other changes to the process of redrawing congressional, legislative and State School Board boundaries.

“This is the literal definition of the fox guarding the henhouse. If the Utah Legislature eliminates the core principles of gerrymandering reform, they are missing the point,” said Jeff Wright, Better Boundaries GOP co-chairman, calling it critical that lawmakers “follow the same ground rules as were decided statewide in 2018.”

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, made it clear repeal is an option but said legislative leaders “haven’t completely decided on a course of action yet. So we will see. We have to run a bill to fix the constitutional issues. We’d love to have a willing partner, but it sounds like we may not.”

Wilson said lawmakers have been working with Better Boundaries for a year to deal with concerns including what he termed conflicts between the legislative branch of government, which would still have the final say on the boundaries drawn after the once-every-decade census, and the new commission that would be advisory.

“I wouldn’t say necessarily that it’s going down, but we’re going to have to wade in and fix the legal and constitutional concerns. Whether it’s tweaking it, which is what we’ve been talking about with them, or making larger changes, I think will be determined.”

He suggested Better Boundaries may be trying to create more legal issues surrounding the initiative.

Protesters pay homage to voter-approved initiatives that Utah lawmakers have altered as news spread on Utah’s Capitol Hill on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020, that legislators plan to make tweaks to Proposition 4.
Katie McKellar, Deseret News

Lawmakers have already undone two of the three other initiatives passed by voters in the last general election, one legalizing medical marijuana and another accepting the full Medicaid expansion available under the Affordable Care Act. All appeared on the ballot as propositions.

“We don’t want to send a message that we don’t understand and hear what people are saying when they vote for those, but I think there also has to be an appreciation that we’ve got concerns about creating a lot of taxpayer liability and concerns related to the way that language was specifically written,” the speaker said.

He said the yet-to-be released bill could remove some of the contentious areas in the initiative, but “there are other options, too, which is along the lines of full repeal, but I’d love to find common ground if we can, but we’re not in a place where we’re willing to do something we think is irresponsible.”

Senators involved in the negotiations with Better Boundaries weren’t as adamant about a repeal of the initiative also known as Prop. 4 being on the table.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, the sponsor of a bill making fixes to the initiative that is still being drafted, said he is “committed to respecting the voice of the people and maintaining an independent commission, with some of the changes we are proposing. I would reject, personally, I would reject an outright repeal.”

Bramble said “if there’s huge opposition to what we’re trying to do to find common ground, then are we better off just repealing because the animosity is going to be there regardless? That’s not where we’re at. That’s not where either side was at during the negotiations.”

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said he agreed but “that doesn’t mean there’s others in our body who don’t feel differently, but Sen. Bramble and I have been engaged in this for over a year now and we feel like we would like to ... meet the will of the voters. You can see we’ve agreed to almost everything they’ve asked for.”

Vickers said it was “a little unfortunate, I think, the press release is a little bit nuclear.”

Negotiations broke down over requiring that the commission consider provisions “we don’t impose on ourselves,” Vickers said, spelling out that the seven members appointed by the governor and legislative leaders of both parties not engage in gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is a term used to describe redrawing the districts of elected officials to favor incumbents as well as the political party in power. The intent of the independent redistricting commission is to put political pressure on lawmakers to consider maps put together outside the partisan process.

But Bramble said while the commission could adopt that and other terms, defining them in the law creates issues. He said the changes Better Boundaries had agreed to include eliminating the requirement in the initiative for an up-or-down vote on the commission’s proposals.

Rebecca Chavez-Houck, executive director of Protect Better Boundaries, said “it now appears the Legislature is dead set on repeal, as they have been unwilling to accept any compromise that preserves Prop. 4’s ban on partisan and incumbent-protection gerrymandering.”

Chavez-Houck, a former Democratic state lawmaker, said legislative leaders “are insisting that the law must be changed so that the independent redistricting commission is permitted to recommend gerrymandered maps to the Legislature.”

As news spread of the possible repeal of Prop. 4 throughout Utah’s Capitol Hill, protesters stood outside the House chamber holding signs paying homage to past propositions voters approved but lawmakers later altered, along with a sign that read, “We will remember to vote in November.”

Katie Matheson, spokeswoman for the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah, held a sign for Proposition 2, the voter-approved ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana, while warning lawmakers not to touch Proposition 4.

“The people of Utah have had enough. We’re fed up,” Matheson said. “The people have expressed their will and the leg is expressly ignoring that will. ... We will remember this when it comes time to vote in November.”

Contributing: Katie McKellar