Utah Undoing Three Passed Progressive Ballot Measures (and other states info)


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All this, on top of their second to none war on public lands.


In many states, ballot initiatives on expanding Medicaid, limiting gerrymandering, and raising the minimum wage swept to victory in November. Now lawmakers are doing their best to reverse them.

In November, more than half of Utah’s voters approved a bill to expand Medicaid statewide. Last week, Utah’s House of Representatives voted on a new bill, this time to effectively repeal that expansion. Yesterday, the Senate approved it, and Republican Governor Gary Herbert signed it, too.

It’s a similar story from Maine to Idaho. A raft of states passed progressive ballot measures seemingly at odds with their more conservative legislatures and governors; now those lawmakers are taking steps to hedge or even cancel popular initiatives to expand healthcare, end partisan redistricting, decriminalize cannabis, and increase the minimum wage. This conservative backlash highlights the growing role these initiatives play in cities and states where gridlock and gerrymandering can decide outcomes over the popular vote.

“It’s not a new phenomenon by any means,” Josh Altic, who tracks ballot measures for Ballotpedia, told CityLab in October. But winning initiatives are facing challenges with increasing frequency. “I haven’t seen this much brashness on the part of legislative bodies in the six years I’ve been covering these, or even in the last decade or so.”

“What we’ve seen is that politicians who cannot win with voters at the ballot box try to undermine the will of voters where they do have their power,” said Jonathan Schleifer, the executive director of the Fairness Project, which advocated for Medicaid and minimum wage expansions. “If the system is sick, we’re trying to heal it by going straight to voters. It’s no surprise that the virus is acting up.”

Challenges to Medicaid

Utah: All Utahns earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level were expected to gain Medicaid coverage on April 1, after an expansion initiative passed on Election Day with 53 percent of the vote. But Republican lawmakers in Utah are arguing that Proposition 3 will cost the state too much money to implement, even after a $90 million sales tax increase. Instead, Senate and House leaders are pushing SB96, a smaller Medicaid expansion bill that covers only those up to 100 percent of the poverty level, which is around $16,750 for an individual.

With this stab at compromise, says Andrew Roberts, a spokesperson for Utah Decides, an organization fighting to enforce the expansion bill, the legislature is “saying that they’re fulfilling the will of the people by not fulfilling it.”

Advocates argue that not only will the repeal bill deprive low-income citizens of much-needed health coverage, it will ultimately be more expensive for the state. Under the original expansion, Utah would cover only 10 percent of the costs of the insurance, with the other 90 percent coming from the feds. Under the stripped-down version, however, the state would be on the hook for the standard 30 percent—unless the federal government approves a waiver to provide extra funding for the partial expansion. No other state has received a waiver of this kind. “I think this is a mighty big gamble to take,” says Roberts.

Reevaluating redistricting

Utah: After lawmakers in Utah found the two-thirds majority they needed to override Medicaid expansion, they may turn their attention to Proposition 4, which creates an independent redistricting commission. That one is likely to face legal challenges from Republican state senators who say that an independent commission is unconstitutional. So far, lawmakers haven’t introduced any legislation to address the ballot initiative itself.

Medical cannabis

Utah: Even before 53 percent of Utah voters passed a citizen-initiated medical marijuana legalization measure last November, Republicans in the state, with the support of local Mormon leaders, vowed to draft a repeal bill. True to their word, a new, scaled-down measure was introduced at the end of November and a special session was called to vote on it. By December, Proposition 2 was replaced with the Utah Medical Cannabis Act, which reduces the number of illnesses eligible for a cannabis card and tightens tracking requirements. It’s a compromise meant to both prevent a full gutting of the bill and “prevent the diversion of product into a black market,” said Speaker Greg Hughes.

Still, advocates fear the amended legislation will keep medical cannabis out of the hands of patients who need it, and voters argue that the alternate bill is unconstitutional on its face. Last week, a case filed by state voters—without the support of any attorneys—was approved to be heard by Utah’s Supreme Court in March. They accuse the governor, lieutenant governor, and legislature of “eviscerat[ing] the fundamentally-protected right of the people to initiative effective legislation,” according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

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