After bad blood over how 3rd district election was handled, Utah lawmakers intend to set rules for special congressional elections

Legislature wants to set rules in state law.<br>

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Gov. Gary Herbert, June 28, 2016.

After some bad blood this year over the process Gov. Gary Herbert unilaterally imposed to replace retired Rep. Jason Chaffetz, two state lawmakers would like to formally set the rules for a special congressional election — and they intend to vest that authority in the Utah Legislature.

The in-the-works bills from Republican Reps. Dan McCay and Jeremy Peterson, with files opened for the upcoming session in January, don’t spell out specific visions for how that oversight would operate. But they are clear in their attempts to expressly limit the power of the executive branch.

“What I’m hoping is that as we find places where there’s a lack of statutory clarity that we don’t put ourselves in the situation where the governor feels the need to invent a process on his own,” said McCay, R-Riverton.

Herbert called the special election in May, when Chaffetz announced he would step down early from Congress. Five months later, Republican John Curtis, Provo’s mayor, won the open seat.

Several lawmakers, though, were outraged by the governor’s imposition of a timeline and rules. They alleged Herbert overstepped his authority while he suggested it was “what we have on the books today.”

The governor declined to comment on the two new proposals to put a process into statute, with a spokeswoman saying he would withhold judgment until the bills were available to review.

McCay’s legislation builds off of measures introduced last year. At that time, the Senate’s proposal looked a lot like what the governor eventually instituted — with candidates allowed to get on the primary ballot by gathering signatures or going through the party convention and a general election following a timeline that overlapped with municipal elections already in play. The House, though, pushed a version that mirrored how vacancies are filled in other offices, where the party that held the seat chooses the replacement. Neither became law.

Still, the goal is “some kind of marriage between those two” ideas, McCay said.

Peterson, R-Ogden, hopes for some “common ground” with Herbert in drafting the legislation so it doesn’t come to a veto.

“We like our authority,” Peterson said with a laugh, “and it’s good to be able to make the rules.”

Still lingering from the 3rd District special election, too, is a legal fight over a secret opinion the Utah attorney general’s office prepared for the Legislature on Herbert’s setting of the rules.

The State Records Committee ordered Attorney General Sean Reyes to give The Salt Lake Tribune a copy of the opinion, but Reyes has appealed the decision to 3rd District Court.