On the ballot: Medical marijuana, gas tax, gerrymandering

By Doug McMurdo • The Times-Independent

Grand County voters will have much more to think about when they fill out their election ballot this year than they have in the recent past.

Not only must voters decide local issue Proposition 9 – which if approved would lead to the creation of a group to study the best alternative to the county’s form of government – voters will also have to determine what course to take on three proposed amendments to the Utah Constitution—two regarding property tax exemptions and a third that could give lawmakers more authority over calling special sessions.

Other ballot questions ask voters to decide whether to approve a 10-cent increase in the state fuel tax to help fund education, approve medical marijuana, expand Medicaid, and change the way electoral districts are drawn in the state.

The Grand County Council on Sept. 4 officially endorsed a “yes” vote on Proposition 9 and with good reason in terms of local control. If it fails, voters will lose the opportunity to have any say in the matter and the change of government will automatically create a three-person partisan council with a county manager who will have more authority than does an administrator. A yes vote will lead to the study committee, which will have roughly a year to hash out a new change, with public participation. The change in government would go into effect in 2020.

Question 1

With fuel costs already higher than the national average, this is a nonbinding question asking voters to either support or oppose a 10-cent increase in the state fuel tax that would help fund public education. Lawmakers would weigh the outcome of the vote when they deliberate the issue next year.

According to a report in the Salt Lake Tribune, the Legislature approved Question 1 as a compromise with the organization Our Schools Now, which originally sought to raise $700 million from income and sales tax revenue for education through a ballot initiative. The group agreed to drop the push in exchange for a $350 million deal using a combination of property, income and gas tax adjustments. The Tribune reported the only unresolved issue was gas tax, which is what lawmakers will deliberate in 2019.

Austin Cox, the Our Schools Now campaign manager, told the Tribune that Question 1 would provide “transparency and accountability for critical resources to help teachers be successful and to improve outcomes for Utah Kids.” Americans for Prosperity Utah Director Heather Williamson, however, responded that the state “has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.” Williamson said rather than raise the gas tax, “lawmakers should look at more efficient ways to allocate resources we already have.” A Tribune poll taken in June indicated 56 percent of likely voters oppose the gas tax hike.

Proposition 2

With recreational marijuana legal in states to the immediate east and west of Utah, a poll released in June indicated 66 percent of residents support the Utah Medical Cannabis Act.

If approved, patients with a doctor’s recommendation could obtain a medical marijuana card and purchase cannabis in its various forms at licensed private dispensaries.

Supporters such as Michel Melendez of the Libertas Institute, a reportedly libertarian leaning organization, argue that patients should be free to pursue marijuana as a legitimate treatment without fear of committing a criminal act.

Critics, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, concede there are medical benefits to marijuana use, but there are not enough safeguards in the initiative to protect patients and juveniles. Utah Medical Association CEO Michelle McOmber told the Tribune there was a need for parameters, that the proposed legislation gives the marijuana industry “control of everything.”

Proposition 3

The June poll revealed 54 percent of Utahns support the full expansion of Medicaid under terms of the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – with 35 percent opposed and 11 percent undecided.

The state is waiting for approval or denial of a Medicaid waiver request it sent to the federal government. If granted, according to the Tribune, the waiver would allow Utah to move forward on a partial expansion of Medicaid coverage for low-income residents, and would impose work requirements and rely on an increase in federal funding.

Proposition 3 would eliminate the waiver process, and fully expand Medicaid through combining $90 million in state funding through a 0.15 percent bump to the state sales tax, and $800 million in federal funding in order to provide health care coverage to roughly 150,000 low-income residents.

Pediatrician William Cosgrove told the Tribune he supports the proposition, saying that having so many people unable to access health care is “a detriment to Utah’s economic engine.” But the organization Americans for Prosperity’s Williamson argues passage would lead to “runaway health care costs” as “able-bodied adults flood the Medicaid system.” The result would force lawmakers to increase taxes, she warned.

Proposition 4

Electoral districts are typically redrawn following the decennial census and that will certainly occur in Utah in a couple of years, but voters this year have a say in just how that process plays out.

Typically, legislators have been allowed to draw their own boundaries – meaning they get to choose their voters rather than voters choosing their representatives, according to supporters – but Prop 4 if approved would create an independent and unelected redistricting commission. The commission would help lawmakers create electoral maps that would “pay deference to municipal and county boundaries, neighborhoods and geographic features.” The legislature would then have the authority to either accept or toss out the new maps.

Catherine Kanter, campaign manager for the group Better Boundaries, argues the “initiative is meant to fix a broken redistricting process in the state. There’s an inherent conflict of interest when legislators draw their own electoral boundaries…Politicians are essentially able to engage in gerrymandering with limited oversight, transparency and virtually no rules. We think that has been harmful.”

State Sen. Ralph Okerlund, a Republican from Monroe, in a written argument against Prop 4 argued it was unconstitutional and politically motivated. “They are seeking to unconstitutionally pack what is now a competitive congressional district with Democrat votes to create a single, safe and solidly Democrat election district for themselves.”

Two of the initiative’s four co-chairs are Republicans. One of them is Jeff Wright, former Gov. Jon Huntsman’s finance director when Huntsman was a candidate in the 2012 presidential election. He told the media: “Republicans don’t like a rigged system, they don’t like unaccountable elected officials choosing their own districts.” Wright said the goal behind the initiative is not to affect an outcome, but the process.

The June poll revealed two out of three Utahns support the creation of the commission, according to the Tribune.

Amendments A & B

The state Constitution would be amended if voters approve any of three amedments on the 2018 ballot. Two of them regard property tax exemptions. The first would clarify an existing exemption for active duty military. The Tribune did not note any opposition to the proposed amendment.

Supporters of Amendment B, which would exempt property taxes for people who rent property to the government, argue the government would pay itself through property taxes on private property it rented. Critics argue those renters already enjoy a steady and reliable tenant and they don’t require an additional tax exemption.

Amendment C

If approved, the legislature would have the right to call a special session outside of the normal 45 working days session that takes place each year January through March. Currently, only the governor has that right – and only the governor has authority over what topics are deliberated.

A two-thirds majority would have to approve the special session. The 45-day limit requires lawmakers to maintain discipline during the session, said a spokesman from Gov. Gary Herbert’s office. Herbert opposes the proposed amendment.

There are times, however, when 45 days just isn’t enough time to address issues that require immediate attention outside of the times lawmakers are in session, said House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, in comments made to the Tribune. The governor would retain the power to veto any legislation that arises during the special session, but would no longer have domain over the topics discussed.