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Activists can't get a referendum on Gov. Herbert's COVID-19 orders, so they may take him to court

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Posted at 2:33 PM, Aug 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-28 16:33:08-04

SALT LAKE CITY — A pair of activists have failed to get a citizen referendum challenging Governor Gary Herbert's COVID-19 executive orders, FOX 13 has confirmed.

Steve Maxfield and Daniel Newby sought the referendum after Gov. Herbert issued a brand new state of emergency for COVID-19 last week. But the Lt. Governor's Office rejected it quickly.

"The state constitution states that you can refer a law passed by the legislature, and also statute states you can refer a law passed by the legislature," said Utah State Elections Director Justin Lee. "It doesn’t mention executive orders. Because this isn’t covered by the constitution or statute, we rejected those applications."

A referendum under Utah law is a vote by the people on a bill the legislature passes. Opponents of a massive tax reform bill the legislature passed came close to getting one on the ballot before lawmakers retreated and repealed their bill. Maxfield and Newby have sued the state over other rejected referendums and even went before the Utah Supreme Court seeking a referendum on the legislature's medical marijuana replacement bill (it was rejected).

Maxfield told FOX 13 on Friday they were exploring their legal options, including a possible petition to the Utah Supreme Court again. He said he was less concerned about the content of the governor's orders than with the governor utilizing the power to act as "both executive and legislative branch."

"It sets up the governor as authoritarian to do whatever he damn well pleases and there’s no check by the legislature and the people," Maxfield said.

On a larger scale, a similar battle has played out between the governor and legislative leaders on Capitol Hill. Republican lawmakers were not planning to renew the governor's state of emergency declaration for COVID-19, forcing him to let it end and then turn around and issue a new one. While Utah's laws weren't exactly designed for an ongoing pandemic, Gov. Herbert argued that not issuing one left us as the only state without an emergency declaration and jeopardized federal funding and health guidelines for the deadly virus.