Smith was a member of the Legislature at the start of the 20th century. It may have been one of the few times in the state’s history when he could have been elected, even in his native Ogden. Smith was a populist who, from the sources I’ve read, was not too popular with his fellow lawmakers.
For that reason, he might have enjoyed sticking it to lawmakers more than 100 years in the future.
So when House Speaker Brad Wilson opened the 2020 legislative session on Monday by warning about “legislation by referendum,” saying it “can be divisive and at many times be short of facts,” he was repeating, in essence, what many lawmakers have said since the days when Smith held office.
Wilson was reacting to a petition drive that, as of Tuesday, had succeeded in getting enough signatures certified that voters would get to vote in November on repealing a tax reform law passed last month. Rather than wait for November, the Legislature voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to repeal it, themselves.
For many, it was done reluctantly.
“Our neighbors elected us to immerse ourselves in the details of each policy, weigh the various interests, drawbacks and benefits,” Wilson said in his opening day speech. “This is a significant amount of trust that has been placed on us.”
He wasn’t alone in those sentiments. Before the repeal vote, Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, spoke of the amount of time lawmakers had spent crafting the reform package — nine months, 18 public meetings statewide, listening to 60-plus hours of public comment.
He said he took issue with the “misconception” that the bill was rushed into law in the middle of the night.
“I do appreciate the referendum process. It is a check on what we do,” he said, promising the issue will return before making a motion to repeal “the second largest tax cut in the history of the state of Utah.”
Over in the Senate, you could hear similar words. Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, spoke at length about the work that had gone into writing the law. He referred to the referendum as “a lot of fervor and uproar,” and said he wished people could see the real impact the reform package would have had.
Amid all this hand-wringing, it’s important to understand that these lawmakers are not just throwing tantrums. The foundational premise behind a republic is that the people, rather than deciding every matter of public policy through an election, select representatives who can take the time to study the details and vote for them.
When a lawmaker proposes a bill, it goes through a process in which other lawmakers can try to amend it to reflect the interests of their constituents, or to simply make the bill better. They can listen to people who show up at committee hearings to express concerns. The friction this process creates chips away at a bill’s rough edges.
An initiative or referendum gives people only an up-or-down vote. In this case, no one can be absolutely certain whether they might have supported a lesser version of the same thing, although the reasonable conclusion is that a proposed increase in the tax on food is what made people upset.
In reality, though, this week’s repeal was an example of the best use of the right Sherman S. Smith gave Utahns all those years ago. Lawmakers have made the rules of referenda so difficult that only the ones that truly rile the public will succeed.
Wilson warned of states where people power has become ruinous, but Utah isn’t about to become California. It is, however, a state where politicians and the people sometimes have to grapple over the best ways to solve problems, which isn’t a bad thing.
So yes, Smith is probably smiling somewhere. So is Henry W. Lawrence, a socialist and equally divisive figure who correctly predicted 120 years ago that, when it came to initiatives and referenda, the fight had just begun.