The theory behind having a representative democracy, instead of the direct kind where all major decisions are put to a vote of the whole people, is that a body of elected representatives will do a better job of governing.
The assumption is that a small cross-section of the populace, chosen by democratic means, can study the issues, hear from advocates and experts, weigh the pros and cons, take the long view and make better choices than would be the result of any plebiscite.
That was a fairly common, and well-grounded, assumption. Until the last 10 days or so.
Now there is reason to argue that, at least when the representative body in question is the Utah Legislature, the people can be counted upon to make better decisions.
Exhibit 1: Proposition 3. That was the ballot initiative, passed last November, in which a majority of Utah voters told the state to stop fooling around and accept, without strings, conditions or exceptions, the full expansion of Medicaid authorized by the federal Affordable Care Act.
But wait, said Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah Legislature. We don’t want to do the decent, economically sensible and legally greased thing. We want to come up a plan that is plainly inferior, both in the number of households covered and the amount of money that will be added to the state’s economy, because we don’t like the whole idea.
And the voters were told that they should not worry their pretty little heads about it because the fact that their alternative to Prop 3 — Senate Bill 96 — did not conform to the ACA was a mere detail. The new Republican administration, we were assured, would grant the necessary waivers for this Utah Exceptionalism.
Which means, even under the provisions of SB96, the whole process resets to Prop 3, and the basic ACA-granted expansion of Medicaid should kick in.
Sadly, if predictably, Herbert and other state officials said the other day that they haven’t given up on getting the waivers and are still not ready to heed the will of the voters.
Or to pay attention a new study finding that if all 50 states had expanded Medicaid from the beginning, rather than the 37 jurisdictions that did so, some 15,000 deaths would likely have been prevented. Something that one might expect would be meaningful in a state where many leaders describe themselves as “pro-life.”
Meanwhile, it was brought to the attention of the powers that be that, in replacing Proposition 2, a structure to make marijuana available for medial purposes, with a different plan, House Bill 3001, the Legislature changed a distribution plan that would have been allowed by the federal government to one that won’t.
The lawyers are still quibbling over the details, and the Legislature may yet be able to tweak their preferred law into compliance. But prosecutors in Salt Lake and Utah counties warned the other day that by making a government agency — specifically some county health departments — not just licensing authorities but actual distributors of a Schedule 1 drug, the state plan might be in violation of federal law. Something that Prop 2, with its reliance on private distributors, would not have been.
It is a matter of process. To get an initiative on the ballot, advocates have to jump through a series of hoops that includes having their drafts approved, costs calculated and a series of public hearings held. To overturn an initiative, legislators just have to show up.
In the matter of Prop 2 and Prop 3, the Legislature should have listened more and acted less. Because the people had already made the right decisions.