Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Bob Bernick is not trustworthy…but Urquhart, Killpack, and co. are not telling the whole story about referendums either. A look at SB 53 and SB 54.

Bob Bernick is biased and unreliable and is correctly being called on it by Rep. Urquhart, BUT…our state legislators are also using his dishonesty to dance around the important issue of citizen redress because they ALREADY made major changes in referendums and initiatives this past session, making most submission dates even more difficult to meet and eliminating any land use referendums as another bone to powerful developers.


I first saw Bernick’s sloppiness clearly in his February story on conflicts of interest (Not saying it wasn't there before—I just wasn't paying attention to individual reporters until recently). I think it is a legitimate and very important issue, but Bernick lazily mixed the lesser number of substantive conflicts with broad accusations of conflict on very flimsy grounds (e.g. any lawyer proposing any bill having to do with law was conflicted and similar claims about other professions), even accusing Senate President Valentine of having conflicts on 3 completely empty "boxcar" bills. When the Senate leaders responded, Bernick threw a fit at being called lazy and unethical and counter-attacked Senators Dmitrich and Bramble for the extensive amounts of lobbyist gifts they accepted. Once again, I 100% agree with his position that Dmitrich and Bramble compromised their public trust and showed a continuing lack of ethics by accepting those trips and gifts (During a January Q&A session, Bramble tried to browbeat attending teachers in defense of his trips and Jazz games, daring us to “Raise your hand if you think that was a conflict of interest. Anyone? Anyone?” as he glowered around the room inviting some poor teacher to take him on.), but it has absolutely nothing to do with whether Bernick fabricated conflicts of interest about empty bills or not. Bernick’s latest claim that the legislature intended to make the signature gathering process for referendums more difficult, but then reversed course, is apparently another instance of “creative reporting” judging from the callout by Senator Killpack and Rep. Urquhart’s confidence that the tapes of the discussion will vindicate the legislators.

SB 53 and SB 54—Citizens’ rights of redress

That said, I feel Rep. Urquhart and Senator Killpack are being disingenuous as well. They didn’t make that one, specific change to the signature gathering requirements that Bernick is claiming, but they did pass two new laws restricting certain referendums and making the hoops more difficult for every type of referendum and initiative except statewide referendums—and I believe that is only because they were wary of just such an attack as Bernick made. So they left out the type of referendum they lost on to provide themselves some false moral high ground while simultaneously restricting the right of their constituents to affect the decision making process at all other levels of government. I don’t think there was a problem with the former requirements that needed to be addressed or any defensible rationale for the new restrictions on citizen redress. I personally asked Senator Bramble about his opinion on referendum law and the signature gathering requirements in the January meeting, heard his disdain for it as he explained similar points to what Bernick quotes him as saying (the people aren't informed, ancient pure democracies failed, California is worst state, etc.), and finally got his statement that he thought the bar for signatures was probably high enough so they wouldn’t change it this session. I feel he wasn’t quite straight with me on legislative intent since he didn’t mention the other crucial changes they were planning for referendum law.

Let’s look at the two laws. I want to start with the fact that both of these bills enjoyed near unanimous support from both Democrats and Republicans. Insulating elected officials from those pesky citizens seems to be a bipartisan issue.

First, SB 53. The only legislators to vote against this boon to developers were Rep.’s Kiser and Newbold. I don’t know either well, but neither has previously voted against the Republican grain much, especially Newbold. I would love to hear their reasoning.

Here is pretty much the entire text of the bill. It’s one page, short and deadly. The law changes the previous text of state code which only referred to budgets (new stuff in italics).

Highlighted Provisions:
This bill:
prohibits the use of local initiatives for land use ordinances or changes in land use ordinances; and prohibits voters from requiring the implementation of a land use ordinance to be submitted to voters.
(1) The legal voters of any county, city, or town may not initiate [budgets]: (a) a budget or [changes] a change in [budgets.] a budget; or_(b) a land use ordinance or a change in a land use ordinance.
(2) The legal voters of any county, city, or town may not require any budget adopted by the local legislative body or the implementation of a land use ordinance adopted by the local legislative body to be submitted to the voters.

Why?! What purpose does this serve? I can see why changing an established budget would be problematic. Planning would be impossible and many companies would not contract with the city, county, etc. if they thought the rug could be pulled from them on a vote in a couple of months. And as important a duty as the budget is for a council or legislature, it is relatively short-term and impermanent. A newly elected administration can easily make changes to the next year’s budget.

Other laws and policies, however, have much more long-lasting effects that can be difficult or impossible to change after the fact. Land use laws seem to fit squarely in that category. City or county bodies making those important decisions can be as small as three people. If they change the zoning and allow a company or subdivision to be built, the government can’t go back and tear down those structures if the decision makers or general population have regrets afterwards. Now, there’s a philosophical argument against zoning and land use laws in general in favor of increased private property rights, but that’s a different issue. If zoning laws in general were to be refuted, that would affect both legislative and public decisions. But as long as we as a society have decided that some form of land use regulation is legal and in our best interest, and those decisions have irreversible, permanent effects, then why shouldn’t the people be able to hold initiatives or referendums on land use ordinances?! I can honestly see no other reason than to appease developers.

I suspect the true motivation behind this bill came specifically from Wendell Gibby, the controversial developer trying to build a subdivision on land Mapleton City contends is environmentally sensitive. Gibby is extremely well-connected and high-ranking state legislators have communicated their ability to curtail the powers of local government and written letters threatening the job of the judge of the lawsuit. Concerned citizens at one point tried to hold a referendum overturning a decision by Mapleton officials allowing Gibby to build, but were not allowed to contest "an administrative action." There may actually be some legitimate concerns and debate over the proper use of the government’s eminent domain powers in the Mapleton case, but why should the people’s right to question officials’ land use decisions in general be taken away? Who does that serve?

Another current example is the upcoming and hotly disputed referendum in Sevier County where many residents are trying to overturn a county commission’s decision to allow a coal power plant to be built in a certain valley. This referendum was grandfathered since the process began before the passage of SB53, but would currently be illegal. The fundamental question is whether a county’s general population should be able to decide whether to allow a power plant? Or should some maneuvering and designations of different acronyms allow a small number of county commissioners to make this irreversible decision?

As illustrated in the last link, the power company is using SB53, which passed after the referendum process had begun, to justify a lawsuit attempting to halt the referendum. A Beaver County development group is using the same tactic to try and stop a vote on their project as well.

Knowing some of the recent history of the legislature helps. The Realtor Association and PAC and property development lobbyists are by far the best-connected and influential special interest groups on Capital Hill and in my opinion behind some horrible laws and tax breaks. The most egregious example of literally taking away the voting rights of ordinary citizens is HB 466, commonly known as “The Developer’s Dream Bill," which the legislators unanimously passed in 2007 with little debate. This bill honestly gave a large land owner permission to start their own town, include other property owners against their wishes as long as the cumulative amount of their property was low, and then appoint the city council for the first two years, while the other US citizens who were annexed received no vote on their public officials for two years. The famous Ruby’s Inn right outside the entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park immediately incorporated, and now this literal “company town” where 73 of the 138 residents are relatives of the inn’s owner gets to pay itself $300,000 in taxes that used to help provide public services in sparsely populated Garfield County. There were at least two contentious attempts to incorporate towns of barely 100 people in Wasatch County, (Aspen, Utah unsuccessfully and Independence, Utah) and a contentious process is still going on today over the grandfathered incorporation of Powder Mountain as its own town with again the large corporation getting to hand-pick the mayor and city council of the town of under 150 people. The Weber County Forum and Ogden Valley Forum have frequently addressed this topic and examined the ridiculous nature of the bill’s process of incorporation:

The legislature soon recognized how stupid their unanimous vote looked with the law’s “variety of unintended, and unpleasant, consequences” (This is a Senate Site post written by two senators and titled “The Unintended Consequences of 2007’s HB 466." Be sure to read the comments from angry residents of Daniel, Utah in Heber Valley, victims of one of the aforementioned incorporation attempts.) and “clearly” it needed amending. They passed a new law this year, HB 164, that changes the incorporation rules to not allow wealthy land owners to take away the vote of other citizens, but refused to make it retroactive, claiming it would be “unfair” to the developers. If you’re going to read only one of these links, read this WCF post on the amendment process, where Senator Christensen is quoted “I had no idea it was wrong at the time,” he said. “I think it flew past all of us.I think that sums up why us citizens question the legislature anytime they want to take away our ability to vote on their decisions because they are so much better informed than us. As I said in a post earlier today, we often don't know as much about the inner-workings of many laws and processes, but we are just as capable of getting informed when something becomes very important to us. Many residents of Eden who are getting scooped up into Powder Mountain Kingdom know plenty about HB 466 now; many Beaver and Sevier County residents could tell you all about the flaws of SB 53; and it happened in the voucher debate. The elected representatives should gather information and legislate the majority of the time, but not feel territorial when the people want a say or try and protect their work from us.

SB 54 is a quieter bill that just tightens the screws a little bit, making it more unlikely that any of the above county or municipal referendums could ever happen. Speaker of the House Greg Curtis is the only legislator who voted against this bill on the floor. My negative opinion of Curtis leads me to believe this was some kind of stunt, and I did hear this mentioned once as “proving his independence” (on a bill he almost certainly knew would be passed unanimously before he allowed it onto the floor), but I don’t know for sure. I would love to hear his reasoning if indeed he disagrees with this bill.
The bill’s text is pages and pages long. Here’s the summary at the beginning of the bill—I’m leaving in the line numbers as I cut and paste this time because I don’t feel like deleting them all:

8 General Description:
9 This bill modifies provisions that govern requirements for state and local initiative
10 petitions and local referendum petitions.
11 Highlighted Provisions:
12 This bill:
13 . requires that a law that is proposed through a state or local initiative contain a title
14 that clearly expresses the subject of the proposed law;
15 . requires that a law proposed through a state or local initiative contain only one
16 subject;
17 . changes the deadline for submitting signature packets for statewide initiative
18 petitions from June 1 to April 15;
19 . changes the deadline for submitting signature packets for local initiatives and local
20 referenda from 120 days before the election to April 15;
21 . changes signature verification deadlines, circulation finance disclosure deadlines, and
22 appeal deadlines to accommodate the change in the deadline for submitting the
23 signature packets;
24 . moves referenda provisions related to the imposition of a county option sales tax
25 ordinance from Title 59, Revenue and Taxation, to the Election Code;
26 . provides that uniform signature verification timelines be applied to all local
27 referenda; and
28 . makes technical changes.

First, a side note. Think about the omnibus education bill lawsuit and notice the mind-boggling irony of lines 13-16. This is an addition, requiring the initiatives or referendums to have “a title that clearly expresses the subject of the proposed law” and that the proposal “contain only one subject.” It was specifically added under the sections for both state and local initiatives. Wouldn’t it have been funny if someone had filed an initiative with a broad title this year and the Attorney General’s office had to sue the filers for breaching this law while simultaneously defending SB2 on the same charges of breaking the Utah Constitution’s requirements for a clear title and single subject?

More on point, SB 54 moved the filing deadlines up almost 3 months for county and municipal referendums and initiatives (sometimes lumped together as “local” referendums and initiatives) and from July 1 to April 15 for statewide initiatives. I repeat my question: Why? What purpose does this bill serve or what problem does it address? The justifications used were to make it easier on county clerks and to make things “uniform.” I don’t see either one of those as justification for making an already onerous, difficult process even harder. As I understand it, an initiative or referendum drive has to gather signatures of 10% of the registered voters in a county or municipality to hold a local initiative or referendum. (And 10% of the registered voters in 26 of the 29 Utah counties for a state wide item. It was an amazing feat for the education community to gather those signatures in roughly 40 days. Does anyone reasonable think that is too long?) An occasional stressful period for clerks notified by the previous deadline, 120 days (4 months) before an election, is worth empowering the people to affect the legislative process. I can see the legislator’s arguments that there should be a relatively high bar to avoid crank legislation being on the ballot, but I see no evidence that frequent, “frivolous” referendums or initiatives have been on the ballot in Utah. I can personally remember a handful of initiatives, all in Salt Lake County, most dealing with some form of funding for public transportation, ZAP tax, and the like. I don’t agree with the outcome of all of those votes, but I feel the public is certainly justified in voting on the issue. Is there a list somewhere of what state, county, and local initiatives have been swamping our system with frivolity? (Here's a list of the 18 state wide initiatives and 2 state wide referendums in the last 48 years.)

And what about referendums? Again, I haven’t always been following the topic closely, but I don’t remember hearing about a public referendum on any level until the voucher vote last November. I certainly feel that vote was important and vindicating for the voice of the people, and the bar’s adequacy, or possibly overly rigorous nature, is illustrated by the fact that Referendum 1 was the first statewide referendum to successfully make it to the ballot in over 30 years. In fact the successful Referendum 1 on vouchers in 2007 and one other land use referendum in 1974 that failed to overturn the law it challenged are the only state wide referendums to make the ballot since 1960. Ballotpedia claims that hunters scared of animal rights initiatives were largely responsible for Utah's restrictive initiative and referendum laws. I don’t know enough to evaluate that assertion, but I don't view one successful referendum in 50 years as excessive. One could easily argue the opposite. I also agree with the premise that the Sevier County power plant referendum, the Beaver County zoning referendum, and the Box Elder County referendum on the sale of a county landfill approved by two possibly conflicted commissioners out of a three member county commission, are all appropriate and important exercises of the public’s right of ultimate authority over those voted into office to represent them, not rule them. These are the first local referenda I can recall hearing about and definitely not frivolous. If these important votes were the impetus for SB54, I think that making these local referenda more difficult was a corrupt decision from a bill largely designed and pushed by powerful development interests through their lobbyist, Steve Barth. Another argument for the too high bar is the difficulty of getting these referendums off the ground without some sort of organization. The forced stadium funding, where the state legislature passed a new law about county-assessed taxes in order to bypass the decision of the locally elected government body with which they disagreed and fund the Sandy soccer stadium (to benefit, of course, a very well-connected and wealthy developer, Dave Checketts) was an even more unpopular decision than vouchers. The referendum to overturn the law barely got off the ground and couldn't get close to the required number of signatures by the former, easier deadline because it was too hard to get volunteers and action organized. If something as stinky and top-down as the stadium funding switcharoo can’t get access to the ballot, that bar is very, very high. In their supposed quest to guard the process from "special interests," legislators may have effectively barred the process to all but those organizations with large numbers of motivated volunteers.

And finally, my argument about the relative hypocrisy of the legislator’s impassioned defense of current law. Notice they changed both referendum and initiative requirements at the municipal and county level, and also the state wide initiative requirements. If the new dates are so important and justified by the overworking of the clerks, why omit state wide referendums, which require a much higher number of signatures and verification work than local referendums? Political cover. The legislature can’t justify the new requirements because of any actual problems, but they are willing to restrict the voice of the people anyway, understanding that 99% of the population will never notice or think about a low-flying law like SB54. As long as they don't touch the current lightning rod of state referendums, they feel safe in cutting the people out of the process more and more.

So when an editorial claims that “Bramble, Valentine, and Rep. Steve Urquhart, of St. George, unequivocally told the D-News from the start that there was nothing wrong with Utah's referendum system and it wasn't up for change.” take it with a large grain of salt. I totally agree the Deseret News should release the recording and that Bernick is often an inaccurate blowhard, but I don’t take the righteous chest thumping of vote-restricting legislative leadership figures at face value.


Jeremy said...

Utah Teacher,

I think this is the most valuable post out there on the topic of the Bernick/Urquhart blowout.

Thank you for bringing the very real issue of referendum dilution by our legislature some good publicity!

neal said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.