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What Goes on Behind the Scenes of the Utah Legislature

On November 6, 2018, Utahns had the opportunity to vote for three Citizen Initiated State Statutes (CISS) – Proposition 2, calling for the legalization of medical marijuana; Proposition 3, an expansion of Medicaid under the “Affordable Care Act”; and Proposition 4, which would create an “Independent Redistricting Commission” and “enact standards, procedures, and requirements related to redistricting”. All three of these initiatives were approved by voters, however Proposition 4 is the only proposed law that has not undergone a vigorous process of “Legislative Alteration”.

Legislative alteration is “when lawmakers at the local or state level amend or repeal citizen initiatives”. In Utah, along with 10 other states that allow citizen initiated state statutes, there are “no restrictions on how soon or with what majority state legislators can repeal or amend initiated statutes”. This means that legislative alteration allows legislators to modify any of these initiated statutes, regardless of whether or not a CISS is approved by a majority vote by citizens.

It is important to note that legislative alteration, in its most basic form, is a good idea. It allows the Legislature to make technical corrections that could improve a proposed law and its efficacy. With that said, a big problem has arisen as states use legislative alteration to change CISSs so much that it no longer corresponds with what voters requested at the ballots. This is just what Utah has done, and it is the power that Gary Herbert flaunted in an interview regarding Proposition 2.

Whether it passes or fails, we’re going to arrive at the same point and conclusion, which is going to be (of) benefit to the people of Utah“.


The term “Citizen Initiated State Statute” suggests that the people of a state can get a proposal on the ballots as long as they fulfill specific requirements. While this is true, there is a false narrative created, which leads to citizens feeling as though they have more control than they do. For example, Proposition 2 fulfilled every requirement to get on the ballot – it had 5 sponsors; its petition gathered 113,143 signatures; it addressed only one issue in its title; it was verified to be patently constitutional and sensical, and it passed fiscal review. Proposition 2 then garnered a majority vote from Utah citizens on election day, leading to the popular expectation that the proposal would soon become law. This is not what happened. In fact, just 24 days after the initiative was authorized by voters, Governor Gary Herbert called a special session for legislators to make changes to Proposition 2. On December 3rd, only three days after the special session, the Legislature passed these changes in House Bill 3001, which had Gary Herbert’s signature on the same day. This was followed by two lawsuits – one by the “The People’s Right” and the other by “TRUCE” and the “EAU” – regarding the replacement of Proposition 2 with House Bill 3001. The Utah Supreme Court unanimously rejected “The People’s Right” suit based on “Utah Code, Title 20A, Chapter 7“. The second lawsuit, from “TRUCE” and the “EAU”, has reportedly been pushed to “late 2020 or early 2021“.

The problems associated with legislative alteration are not in regards to its original purpose. The issue is how the Utah legislature has taken advantage of this tool and used it to enforce their own agenda, rather than granting citizens their desires. Through CISSs, states have allowed their citizens to take action on their own and to advance democracy, however those in power have used legislative alteration to belittle this practice. Rather than enforcing democracy, the Utah legislature and Gary Herbert have imposed a force reminiscent of autocratic rule through the inappropriate use of legislative altercation.

This raises a question: if state elected representatives will not represent their constituents, why do they pursue positions in public office?

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Junior at the University of Utah
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