House speaker goes 1-1 in battles for more power vs. governor

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert holds up a book of laws passed by the 1918 Utah Sate Legislature as he gives his State of the State address in the Utah House of Representatives in Salt Lake City Wednesday January 24, 2018.

House Speaker Greg Hughes began this year’s legislative session by urging part-time lawmakers to push for more power against the full-time governor. He overwhelmingly lost one key battle Wednesday, but won another.

The House defeated HB175 by a 54-20 margin. The bill would have created a new Oversight Committee to investigate and oversee executive agencies, and willing local governments.

But the House Government Operations Committee voted 6-1 to advance a bill to strip the governor’s power to fill U.S. Senate vacancies, and to give parties — not voters — the ability to choose party nominees for vacant U.S. House seats.

Such measures resulted from a fight last summer between lawmakers and Gov. Gary Herbert, when Herbert refused to call the Legislature into session to write rules for a special congressional election. Instead, he set the rules himself.

Fuming legislators vowed to seek more power.

HB175 was one attempt at that, and would have created an Oversight Committee — similar to the one in Congress once led by former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, which he used for lengthy investigations of Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state.

The bill would have allowed the committee to investigate and oversee executive agencies, cities, counties, school districts and other local districts.

Its sponsor, Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, told colleagues, “If you were frustrated last summer because the governor didn’t call us into special session, what are you going to do about it…? This is what healthy tension looks like. There’s nobody else out there who’s going to fight this battle for us.”

But the bill died largely because of opposition from cities, counties and school districts that said the committee might interfere with local elected officials. Stratton tried to ease that concern with an amendment saying the committee could look at local governments only with their consent.

But local governments’ continuing opposition killed it — along with arguments that the Legislature may already conducts audits and has other methods to conduct oversight without the new Oversight Committee.

Meanwhile, HB344 advanced — as the lone member on the committee opposing it said the bill likely would have brought a different result in the special election last year won by Rep. John Curtis.

HB344 would hold a special election within 110 days of most U.S. House vacancies — and parties would appoint their nominees in 30 days, likely by a vote of convention delegates.

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, who opposed it, noted the process lacks a primary, and has only a general election — so voters would have no direct voice on party nominees. And candidates could not qualify for the ballot by collecting signatures.

One reason that Herbert refused to call legislators into special session last year was his worry that they would not allow signature collecting.

GOP delegates last year supported ultra-conservative former state Rep. Chris Herrod, while rejecting more moderate Curtis and others. But Curtis qualified for the ballot by collecting signatures. He won the primary easily among Republican voters who tend to be more centrist than delegates.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dan McCay, said he eliminated signature gathering and a primary to allow a quick election. Arent said, however, “I don’t think the world came to an end when the 3rd Congressional District wasn’t represented for a while,” but the bill now “could arguably change the result” of last year’s election that gave voters more choice.

The bill would also strip the governor’s power to appoint by himself a replacement to the U.S. Senate when a vacancy occurs. “Honestly, it’s a vestige of the past,” McCay said.

Instead, the bill calls for the party of the departing senator to choose the replacement for rubber-stamp appointment by the governor.

McCay said that would mean about 4,000 state delegates would elect that senator, which he said “is pretty good representation” compared to a governor choosing a successor by himself.