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Gehrke: Guv v. Legislature about to turn into ‘House of Cards’ meets ‘Game of Thrones’

First Published      Last Updated May 22 2017 12:15 pm

Rep. Jason Chaffetz's announcement that he would resign his House seat effective June 30 essentially ends the battle between Gov. Gary Herbert and the Legislature over the process for his replacement.

But just because Herbert appears to have won this round doesn't mean there won't be fallout. Long-simmering tensions between the governor and the Legislature have boiled over and now will turn into "House of Cards" meets "Game of Thrones."

You can expect to see it manifest Saturday at the Utah Republican Convention, where the governor will likely get a chilly reception from the delegates who spurned him in his re-election bid a year ago. And count on House Speaker Greg Hughes, who speaks after Herbert, to use the opportunity to take a swipe or two.

GOP legislators flirted with the idea of suing the governor — and still could — based on advice from legislative attorneys that, by compacting the deadlines for the special election, Herbert is overstepping his legal authority.

It probably won't happen, however, because if a judge ruled in the legislators' favor, it would merely delay filling the vacancy.

But payback won't end there.

"It could be a bad year for the executive branch," one Republican lawmaker told me.

House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, is considering running a constitutional amendment next session that would allow the Legislature to call itself into a special session, as is the case in 35 states.

The Legislature will almost certainly pass legislation changing special elections for U.S. House members to remove any signature-gathering route, turning over the power to the delegates and challenging the governor to veto it.

You can also count on a bill coming out of the House that would make it so the lieutenant governor no longer automatically becomes governor if the governor leaves office — a shot at Herbert, who inherited the position from Gov. Jon Huntsman.

And there will be more petty games, whether it's clipping the governor's authority or slapping down his policy priorities or trimming his office budget.

It's absolutely true that a special session would have been a tidier solution, but if they had their way, legislators would have done away with the primary election and instead given the nominating power to a small group of party delegates.

Herbert, to his credit, held his ground and protected the voice of voters in the 3rd Congressional District.

Now begins a bit of a sprint. Under the time frame Lt. Gov Spencer Cox announced Friday, candidates have until June 12 to gather signatures or until the following week to woo enough Republican delegates at convention to win a spot in the Aug. 15 primary and a shot to advance to the Nov. 7 general election.

The governor's plan could face some legal hurdles if, for example, a candidate falls short of the 7,000-signature threshold and challenges the shortened window to collect signatures. Or, perhaps, a candidate could challenge the closing of the filing window a full month before Chaffetz's resignation actually creates the vacancy the election is intended to fill.

It is, certainly, a seat-of-the-pants election and is far from ideal. It would have been great if lawmakers had specified a process any time in the past 120 years. But just because they didn't, doesn't mean we're in the wilderness. The law defines "elections" to include special elections like this one, and we do have a process for conducting elections.

Central to that process is the Legislature's relatively recent policy decision that it is better for our democracy if we don't force candidates to dance before delegates to get on the primary ballot and instead provide another path, the signature-gathering route.

Why then, would a special election be any different? In the Republican case, why would we trust roughly 500 partisan delegates — a majority of the roughly 1,000 total delegates in the 3rd District — who studies have shown do not even represent the mainstream of their party, much less the district, to pick the next member of House representing roughly 750,000 Utahns?

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