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Gov. Gary Herbert cautioned legislators against playing games with the Count My Vote initiative, warning that there could be a tremendous public backlash if voters are denied a meaningful voice.
Herbert said he supports the current system of delegates chosen at caucuses winnowing down the field of nominees for office, and is concerned about the state telling parties they have to change.
"I'm also concerned," he said, "about the Legislature saying to the people, under their constitutional right to have an initiative petition, that we are going to anticipate what you're going to do and consequently be perceived to be gaming the system to thwart the will of the people."
Sen. Curt Bramble's SB54 incorporates the Count My Vote initiative which would require direct primaries to nominate candidates for office in its entirety. But it also provides parties a way to circumvent the primary process if they meet certain requirements for their caucus-convention process, such as providing for absentee voting for delegates, adopting rules that would lead to more primaries and opening primary elections to unaffiliated voters.
If SB54 passes, it wouldn't matter if Count My Vote organizers are able to gather the nearly 102,000 signatures to put it on the ballot in November or if voters decide they want the direct-primary process.
Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, one of the organizers of the Count My Vote movement, said Bramble's bill is a "clever" attempt to deprive voters of their constitutional right to the initiative process, and preempt the outcome. The group has begun airing radio ads and launched a social-media campaign to oppose Bramble's bill.
Herbert said, if SB54 passes, he may veto it if it is deemed to be gaming the system.
"I think we need to be very sensitive to the people's voice," Herbert said. "That initiative-petition process, which is a pretty tall mountain to climb in Utah, needs to be respected. Whether you like the initiative petition or not, the process needs to be respected and allowed to work its way through the system and see what people say. Again, if we don't do that, the people will be very upset with all of us."
Bramble said Wednesday that it is still early in the process and he is willing to discuss changes to his bill. But, he said, SB54 imposes more sweeping reforms than Count My Vote asked the parties to make before they launched their initiative drive, agreeing at the time to shelve the initiative if parties complied. Both parties refused.
Bramble said Count My Vote is hoping to increase voter participation in elections, but there has been no indication direct primaries would achieve that goal.
"There is consensus that we need to have reforms in the election process," Bramble said. "There is no guarantee that Count My Vote will pass if it gets on the ballot. There is no guarantee they will get the signatures. But it is clear we need election reforms."
The bill Bramble is proposing moves in that direction, he said.
Count My Vote has begun submitting signature petitions to county clerks for verification. They have until April 15 to gather nearly 102,000 in order to qualify for the November ballot. The group has raised $1.12 million and spent $1.08 million on the cause.
It is not the first time the Legislature has considered enacting legislation to defeat citizen initiatives and, coincidentally, not the first time that Leavitt and Bramble have been involved.
In 1994, a group gathered enough signatures to put an initiative on the ballot to impose term limits on elected officials. The Legislature responded by passing legislation, which Leavitt signed into law, imposing term limits. The ballot measure, made moot by the legislation, failed that November.
Then, in 2003, before the term limits took effect, Bramble sponsored legislation, also signed by Leavitt, repealing term limits.
Herbert on Lockhart's education technology plan
House Speaker Becky Lockhart's $250 million education technology initiative does not compute, according to Gov. Gary Herbert and Senate leaders.
Herbert said Wednesday that Lockhart's push to put a digital device in every student's hand "kind of came out of left field," and he isn't sure how Lockhart plans to pay for the program.
"At the end of the day there is only so many ways you can slice the pie and there is finite numbers of dollars. And the $300 million, if that became a reality, it's clearly going to have to be taken from someplace else," Herbert said during his monthly KUED news conference. "I don't think the math works out. It's going to have to be a much more limited approach."
Herbert's uncertainty was echoed by Senate leaders Wednesday.
"We are concerned where the money is coming from," said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser. "There's talk about the money coming out of transportation and we're already in a hole in transportation."
He said Senate Republicans believe funding the new students entering schools and increasing per-pupil spending are the top priorities. He said technology is a good tool, but a skilled, trained teacher is the most important key to student success.
"It really highlights some of the balancing act," Niederhauser said. "If we spend more money here, we're going to be taking it from somebody else."
Lockhart said she has been working with Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, on the technology proposal for months, although she didn't meet with senators until early in the session. She has said she believes the money is available, but lawmakers have to make education technology a priority.