Ballot initiatives influenced Legislature’s actions, Sutherland’s Monson says

March 29, 2018

The 2018 legislative session was, in part, defined by the Legislature’s determination to act before it was acted upon, Sutherland Institute Executive Director Derek Monson said Wednesday during a post-legislative panel on the topic of ballot initiatives.

Monson, executive director at Sutherland, joined Utah Reps. Brian King and Becky Edwards, and Chase Thomas from the Better Utah Policy and Advocacy Counsel for The Impact of Ballot Initiatives, which was moderated by Fox 13’s Ben Winslow and hosted by The ABU Education Fund and Stokes Strategies.

ICYMI, Monson’s discussion points included the following:

As the 2018 session began, five policy issues were the subject of a possible ballot initiative. The Utah Legislature enacted legislation touching on three of them:

  • Marijuana legalization
  • Tax increases for public education
  • Medicaid expansion

Read on for more detail:


Medical Marijuana

In relation to an initiative that would create legal ways for Utahns to grow and use marijuana, the Legislature passed two bills:

  • B. 195 guarantees the right to try marijuana for patients with chronic, mortal conditions.
  • B 197 authorizes the state government to grow and process cannabis for research purposes.

The impact of these measures on the marijuana initiative remains unclear. Initiative supporters are generally where they need to be with signatures to qualify for the ballot, but it’s still possible that they come up short in one or several Senate districts. If the initiative fails, however, new legislation from cannabis supporters to legalize marijuana is likely in the 2019 session.

Public Education Funding

One ballot initiative sought to raise revenue for public schools by $700 million by increasing sales and income tax rates. The Utah Legislature brokered a compromise with some backers of the initiative by passing bills that may eventually increase public school funding by an estimated $385 million by doing the following:

  • Increasing state property tax revenue gradually over five years.
  • Asking voters their opinion on raising the state gas tax rate by 10 cents per gallon, which, if it is supported by voters, would presumably be enacted by legislators in 2019 and would lead to funds being shuffled around to provide more money for public schools.

This deal likely came to fruition because of the legitimate risk that the ballot initiative would have been defeated at the ballot box, setting back education funding for years to come. The passage of these legislative measures led ballot initiative backers to withdraw their initiative and instead focus on persuading voters that the gas tax increase is a good idea.

Medicaid Expansion

The final ballot issue touched upon by the 2018 Legislature was an initiative to fully expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Utah representatives passed an alternative approach that, if approved by the federal government, will do the following:

  • Expand Medicaid in a limited fashion (covering an estimated 70,000 Utahns).
  • Establish a work requirement for some Medicaid enrollees and cap the taxpayer burden for Medicaid expansion.

Backers of the full Medicaid expansion ballot initiative are far enough away from fulfilling signature requirements that it is still uncertain whether the initiative will qualify for the ballot. The passage of a limited Medicaid expansion plan by the Legislature may further complicate signature-gathering efforts. At present, it is plausible that Utah could end up with a limited Medicaid expansion program, full Medicaid expansion on the ballot in November, or no Medicaid expansion at all (if signature-gathering efforts fall short and the federal government rejects Utah’s limited expansion proposal).

The Legislature’s inclination to pass legislation that is likely to impact ballot initiatives is grounded in policymakers’ desire to protect the Legislature’s role as Utah’s primary lawmaking body, and a belief that the legislative process is more deliberative and built upon public consensus than the initiative process. Where the Legislature may require years of negotiating and compromise (with dozens of amendments to legislation along the way) to arrive at a workable policy solution, ballot initiatives can be drafted with significantly less vetting and scrutiny – and cannot be changed once they qualify for the ballot. Given the extreme political pressure for policymakers not to undermine a law that has been approved by voters, the latter scenario creates a greater potential for harmful or bad policies to become law through the ballot initiative process.

If policymakers want fewer and/or less harmful ballot initiatives moving forward, they will likely need to reform the initiative process. This could take the form of making it harder to qualify initiatives for the ballot, or reforming the implementation process for ballot initiatives to allow time for legislative adjustments to prevent unintended consequences that come to light during the initiative campaign.

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