If The Utah Legislature Has Few Flavors, Its Menu Changed Greatly With Ballot Initiatives In Its 2018 Session

Rick BowmerAP Images

Vanilla and some chocolate — and this year, strawberry?

Six ballot initiatives with the promise of changing 1.5 million voters into a legislature beyond which meets in Salt Lake City and could have brought to pass new mandates that polls say Utahns love went nowhere on Utah’s Capitol Hill, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Those proposals would increase taxes for schools significantly, bring about full Medicaid expansion, make medical marijuana legal, and alter election law, according to The Tribune.

Throughout the session, those citizen efforts played a role with lawmakers and helped them to move on them despite that resulting in alternatives from what the initiative supporters were seeking, ideas reflected by new bills and occasionally, putting challenges to the initiatives, The Tribune reported.

“Sometimes we are a little tone deaf, I think, in listening to the will of the people. That spawns initiatives. And when you get that kind of a loud roar, people pay attention,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said.

That idea was rather clear regarding Our Schools Now, an organization that wanted to increase education taxes in excess of $700 million per year, Herbert said.

“Clearly Our Schools Now made legislators step up and say, ‘Wait a minute, maybe we need to be a little more generous in education,'” Herbert remarked.

Lawmakers came to a deal with OSN Chair Campaign Manager Austin Cox and several supportive business leaders to basically forget OSN instead for a tax hike bill combination to put up for schools about $375 million more each year. That aim is significantly short of OSN’s goal but has more promise. Determining what the ballot box will yield always carried ambiguity, according to The Tribune.

“That’s a pretty impressive feat to me,” Herbert said. “If it’s not record amounts of money (for schools), it’s going to be near record amounts.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert applauded the Utah Legislature's education funding in its 2018 session.
Featured image credit: Rick BowmerAP Images

A portion of the deal is placing a non-binding inquiry on the ballot concerning increasing the gasoline tax, to aid schools, by 10 cents per gallon. If folks vote for it, legislators said, that would force the lawmakers to respond, The Tribune reported.

As an additional example of an initiative getting legislators to act, lawmakers supported Medicaid expansion to greater levels than they had in the past.

Medicaid bills had not made it past the House, but through HB472, that body pursued federal waivers to permit more insurance, without charge, to approximately 72,000 low-income Utahns.

However, backers of Utah Decides Healthcare remarked that their proposal would provide insurance for two times as many Utahns as HB472, given its hike in a sales tax. For that reason, UDH is plowing forward towards a November vote, according to The Tribune.

Another ballot initiative, to legalize medical marijuana, is doing that, too.

Legislators sent bills to the governor’s desk to permit folks who will always remain sick with no more than six months left to live the “right to try” cannabis, and permitted growing it for that purpose only, The Tribune reported.

This progress is definitely what may have been envisioned a handful of years back. Still, some aren’t happy.

“The legislation that was passed can barely be described as medical marijuana,” Connor Boyack, Libertas Institute president, remarked. “Yet again, the Legislature has proven its unwillingness to take anything but a small step when the public has consistently shown itself ready to take a big leap and help thousands of patients soon rather than waiting several years.”

Also, there was legislation to permit voters an undisputed selection this year on election laws steered by citizen efforts. But lawmakers let it expire as the session ended, according to The Tribune.

The bill would have permitted voters to determine if they would permit candidates to make it on a ballot exclusively via Utah’s caucus-convention system or permit that and/or collecting signatures to get through.

An initiative by Count My Vote would seal the legal deal in terms of two routes to a nomination by a part. However, if the measure lost or did not make the ballot, HB338 would have required a return to utilizing nothing but the caucus-convention path. That’s the one that the Utah Republican Party has wanted to maintain via legal action, The Tribune reported.

“I don’t know how we can argue against giving people the opportunity to have a vote on this issue,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton.

Lawmakers occasionally did not take action at the idea of 1.5 million voters coming into their legislating area — and it resulted in remarks that won’t be forgotten, according to The Tribune.

A handful of those was heard in a back-and-forth on HB471 to put off bringing in efforts by citizens to give lawmakers time to change them or arrange them in conjunction with additional statutes, The Tribune reported.

“I really don’t understand why we persist in antagonizing the people of the state of Utah. It’s so obvious that we are sticking a finger in their eye,” said House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City. “We’ve got six initiatives that are going forward and we just can’t resist in the middle of the process putting another obstacle in place.”

In a prior debate in committee, recently elected Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George, remarked, “I’m nervous about the concept of empowering the citizenry to intervene so swiftly and rapidly as to even derail the deliberative and systematic processes of the Legislature.”

After folks spoke against Seegmiller’s remarks, Seegmiller wound up opposing the legislation in the entire House, with HB471 not even getting a vote in the Senate, according to The Tribune.