Exploring ramifications associated with passage of open space initiative
When it was announced initiative one had been placed on the 2004 general election ballot, little fanfare resulted. But when Gov. Olene Walker came out against the bill in early October, it stirred the pot enough for the opposition to surface.
"I have been a longtime advocate of open space, conservation, trails and clean air and water," explained Walker in a statement released Oct. 7. "The dream behind initiative one is right, but the implications are wrong."
Walker claimed the initiative would take local funding to address less important issues and the cost of $150 million may be too high.
In recent weeks, politicians running for office have come out against the measure. Organizations like the Utah Taxpayers Association, farm and ranch groups and parties with vested interested have also voiced opposition.
Utah's statewide initiative process is complicated and groups wishing to get measures on a ballot must jump through a lot of hoops. The Utah Code spells out two processes to get an initiative passed into law.
One way is for a group or an individual to gather signatures equal to 5 percent of the voters who cast ballots for the governor in the last general election
In addition, 5 percent of the signatures must come from at least 20 individual counties where ballots were submitted for governor.
If the petition is verified by the lieutenant governor's office, the initiative is submitted to the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president of the Senate not less than 10 days before the beginning of the general session of the Utah Legislature.
Then the two houses can consider the initiative and bring it or an amended version of it into law without the measure going to the people.
However, an initiative can also become law by the direct vote of the people, as is the case with this year's initiative one. In this case a group must gather signatures of 10 percent of the number of votes cast in the last election for governor. They must also get signatures equaling 10 percent of the vote for the governor in the last race from at least 20 counties. In this process the lieutenant governor must declare sufficient signatures by registered voters four months before the next regular general election and then it is placed on the ballot.
In a nutshell that is how the process occurs, although with applications, sponsorship requirements, and other details, the process is more complicated than just getting signatures on a piece of paper.
People sometimes confuse initiatives and referendums. An initiative is a move by the people to bring some measure to the legislature or onto the ballot. A referendum is very different. It is used when a law or measure has been passed by the legislature and it is determined by either the legislature itself or by petition of voters that the support of the electorate needs to be measured on the issue.
Voters who make a decision on initiative one should consider the following items when voting.
By voting for the measure they would authorize the state to borrow up to $150 million from issued bonds. The money for repayment of the bonds would come from a sales tax increase of one-twentieth of one cent. However some money could also come from general state sales tax revenue as well, should the designated amount not pay the bond payments.
The money would be used to preserve or enhance lakes, rivers, and streams and to improve water quality. It would also be used for land issues, such as preserving open space, building parks, trails, preserving historic sites, etc. Some of the money would also be used for wildlife, as well as clean air management.
Money from the bonds would also be used to build local community facilities, such as museums and natural history venues.
The measure specifically points out what money will go to which state agencies, with the Quality Growth Commission (QGC) getting $120 million of the $150 million borrowed. They, in turn, must allocate specific amounts to such agencies as the Division of Wildlife Resources, the Division of State Parks, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Agriculture and Food. The QGC would also have $57 million to work with for matching monies with applicants for various projects concerning open space and conservation.
Proponents of the measure point out the positive results of such a measure, indicating that water quality will improve by protecting lakes, streams and reservoirs, that family farms and ranches will be preserved, and that wildlife and fisheries will benefit from the expenditures. In addition they also state that parks will be improved and historical and cultural resources can be made better and conserved.
"I think this initiative is a good move," stated Democrat Walt Borla, who is running for the open state house seat in District 67 which encompasses about one-third of Carbon County voters. "We need to protect open space. I think the price of this measure is very small for the benefit that could be derived from it."
Democratic congressman Jim Matheson also said last week that he supports initiative one and will vote for it. A call concerning the issue from the Sun Advocate to the Republican challenger for Matheson's seat in the second congressional district, John Swallow, was not returned by press time.
In addition it also has strong support from a number of prominent Utah figures including former senator Jake Garn, former first lady of the state Norma Matheson and John Garff, a prominent Utah businessman.
Opposition to the bill comes from Walker and a myriad of others who see the measure as either "pork barrel" or those that see what they consider more important needs being left behind in the race for state funds.
"I oppose passage of initiative one," said Republican Patrick Painter, also vying for the vacated seat in state house district 67. "Everyone loves open space, including me. But when roughly 70 percent of the state is owned by non private entities, it would seem to me to be more prudent to fund higher priority items of the state budget like education and transportation that currently are not fully funded."
Opposition also comes from those that worry about the control of the money and the power that the situation could dictate.
"Open space is an important issue," commented Democrat Brad King, state house representative from district 69. "But I worry about the decisions that could be made on this. Will it be under state or local control? Everything in the measure needs more detail. Who will be in charge of it? I also wonder about the costs involved and what a bond can do for us over what we could do with cash."
The debate about the specifics of the measure have at times also been overshadowed by who supposedly supports the bill and who doesn't. While there are some individual farmers and ranchers who support it, organizations of those same type of businessmen do not. Last Friday the Utah Farm Bureau, the Utah Wool Growers Association, the Utah Cattlemen's Association, the Utah Dairymen's Association and the Utah Farmers Union held a press conference to ask voters to vote the initiative down.
"If given the opportunity, farmers and ranchers are going to continue maintaining Utah's private open lands," said Utah Farm Bureau President Leland Hogan. "Adequate commodity prices and profitability will allow this generation and the next generation to continue in the operations without additional societal costs of government actions. Initiative one tax dollars would provide unfair government competition in the marketplace for the state's limited land and grazing resources, especially for beginning farmers and ranchers."
The group complained that an advertising campaign by Utahns for Clean Air, Water and Quality Growth, and the Nature Conservancy painted a picture that Utah farmers and ranchers supported the initiative. However at the press conference on Friday, the consortium that represents the majority of agricultural interests said that was not so. The group stated that they were concerned how high spending campaigns can influence voters on issues like this.
Earlier in the week leaders from the legislature also got together and issued a statement that said they were not in support of the initiative. Their reasons included some of the same ones that Walker had pointed out earlier and they also said that budgeting by initiative sets a harmful precedent that has had a detrimental affect on other states where it has been done. They also said that there were other needs that needed addressing more with state money than some of those in initiative one.
"...we struggle each year to make ends meet," the group said in a released statement. "With urgent needs such as education, transportation and law enforcement, it doesn't make sense for the state to assume local government funding issues."