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Former Lawmaker Proposes 'Initiative Act' To Keep Legislature From Changing Voter-Approved Measures

photo of Utah State capitol building.
Brian Albers

After lawmakers made significant changes to two voter-approved ballot initiatives in recent months, there’s pushback from advocates who want to protect future citizen-sponsored measures.

Steve Urquhart, a former St. George Republican senator, and Christine Stenquist with the medical cannabis group TRUCE, who helped put medical marijuana on the ballot, have drafted the “Utah Initiative Protection Act.” If passed, it would force lawmakers to go back to voters if they want to rewrite successful citizen ballot measures. 

“The legislature clearly hates that the citizens share lawmaking authority under our constitution,” Urquhart said in an interview Friday. “They try to make that tougher and tougher for citizens to do. They try to clearly send the message that citizens shouldn’t even bother attempting to make laws.”

Urquhart is proposing the measure either as a bill that could be sponsored by a current lawmaker and passed by the legislature — though he admits that would be unlikely — or as a ballot initiative that could potentially run in 2022.

He insists that the measure would effectively spell the end of legislative meddling in ballot measures unless such changes are OK’d by voters, too.

“The legislature would not be able to willy-nilly come in and undo this” if it passes, Urquhart said. “By the very terms of (the proposed law), any repeal, any amendment they do, will have to go back to the voters who just passed that initiative,” he said.

“I think there’s a lot of discouragement out there among voters,” he added.

Stenquist said she agrees. "Without these added measures, voter cynicism will continue to rise,” she said.

She suggested that the medical marijuana ballot initiative prompted thousands of new voters to turn out to the polls in 2018. 

“Their voices and their vote have value,” Stenquist said. This effort is intended to fortify the initiative process; by doing so, we increase the likelihood of real negotiations on issues in the future."

In November, Utah voters approved three ballot initiatives: one legalizing medical cannabis, one expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and one creating an independent redistricting commission to guide redrawing of legislative districts after the 2020 census.

Just weeks later, the legislature convened in a special session just weeks later to replace the medical cannabis law, Proposition 2, with a scaled-back version that implemented tighter state oversight and shortened the list of conditions that qualify for the drug, among other changes. Republican lawmakers also overhauled the Medicaid expansion with a program that would cover fewer people, but which legislators say would cost less money over time.

But in recent weeks, problems with each have risen with the two initiative replacements.

At least two county attorneys have advised their local health departments against dispensing medical marijuana, arguing that public employees and grant money would be put at risk if government-run agencies hand out marijuana, which is still illegal under federal law.

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said he is working on a solution which he said would “minimize, if not eliminate, the risk for the local health departments.”

A kink in the legislature’s Medicaid expansion plan appeared when the Trump administration signaled that it would likely not approve a federal waiver required to implement the plan. (Read more about the status of Medicaid in Utah.)

During his time in the legislature, Urquhart became the first and only lawmaker to have a voter referendum undo a bill he had sponsored, which would have created a private school voucher program. 

“I’m the only person in the history of Utah to run a law so awful that the people rose up and by referendum said, ‘no, that’s not about to become law,” he said. “That really made me think.”

Even before the school voucher bill, Urquhart also admitted he had played a role in undercutting another ballot measure that dealt with civil asset forfeiture.

“I wish I could say it just took that one experience to teach me, but that was the second experience I had going against citizens’ lawmaking power,” he said. 

Now that he’s on the citizen side of lawmaking, Urquhart said he wishes he would have learned his lesson after the changes he helped make made to the civil asset forfeiture law. 

“I was disrespectful to the people and the peoples’ authority to make laws. I just didn’t think it through,” he said.

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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