Lawmakers Look at Legislation to Ease Petition Process

Utah House chamber
Utah House chamber

Bills that are designed to make the ballot referendum process easier for citizens received favorable nods from the Government Operations Interim Committee Wednesday.

“Referendum Amendments,” sponsored by Representative Fred Cox (Republican – West Valley City), would give people more time to decide whether to they wish to challenge new laws through the petition process. Currently, citizens are required to file notice declaring their intentions within five days of the legislature adjourning. Under the proposed change, citizens would have until five days after the bill becomes law instead (something that can be weeks or months after the legislature ends). “If for some reason, some group decides that they really hate the law that we passed and they really think they can get 100,000 signatures gathered around at least 15 counties, they still have to pull that off in about 35 days or something. It’s really tight for them to be able to do that,” Cox said. The legislation gained quick approval from the committee.

Sponsored by Representative Brian Greene (Republican – Pleasant Grove), “Initiative and Referendum Amendments” would expand the people’s power to challenge actions to include school and water boards, as well as other local government entities that exercise legislative power. The bill also establishes and clarifies deadlines related to the process and removes the present requirement that an initiative or referendum petition bear a statement that the petition signer has read and understands the law being discussed.

Representative Jeremy Peterson (Republican – Ogden) made a motion to move to the next item on the agenda, effectively holding the bill. “I actually like the bill. I like what it’s trying to do. I have some concerns when stakeholders who are impacted by the bill have not had enough time to vet it and provide some substantive feedback. It appears there is some ‘buy-in’ on it, but some of the details need to be hashed out.” The motion failed and the legislation was subsequently approved, with Representatives Patrice Arent (Democrat – Millcreek), Peterson, Lee Perry (Republican – Perry), Sophia DiCaro (Republican – West Valley City), and Senator Margaret Dayton (Republican – Orem) voting against advancement.

Also discussed was a proposal to lift, in part, a ban on lawmakers from accepting donations during the legislative session.

The legislation, which is being sponsored by Representative Daniel McCay (Republican – Riverton), would make an exception for legislators to receive “in-kind” contributions from people who are gathering signatures to help them qualify to appear on the ballot – a provision allowed for under the ever contentious SB 54/Count My Vote legislation.

Representative Arent objected to the idea of an “incumbency protection.” Arent was concerned that lobbyists involved in dealings on Capitol Hill could be simultaneously leading signature gathering efforts and lobbying a state lawmaker on a particular issue, thus creating a conflict of interest.

McCay contended that the bill actually levels the playing field between incumbents and their opponents. Arent said, “My opponent can go out and collect money during the session. My opponent can do a whole lot of things that I can’t do just by virtue of the fact that I’m here 18 hours a day. I’m very, very uncomfortable with the thought of a lobbyist out there in an ‘in-kind’ situation gathering signatures while they are here on the Hill working with us during the session.” She subsequently made a motion to amend that section of the bill. The motion passed, with Representatives Greene, Merrill Nielson (Republican – Grantsville), Curt Oda (Republican – Clearfield), and Dean Sanpei (Republican – Provo) voting in opposition.

The remaining parts of McCay’s bill include removing the ability of political parties to replace a candidate who was disqualified for failing to file a financial disclosure report and setting a filing deadlines for local school board candidates. Under the measure, the deadline for candidates in 2016 would be March 17, 2016. Following 2016, the filing period will take place from the second Friday in March to the third Thursday in March. They were approved by the committee and the legislation will move forward.

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