Utah Speaker Greg Hughes and his House colleagues have led the charge this year for part-time lawmakers to seize more power from the full-time governor — but the Senate joined in for the first time on Friday.

The Senate Government Operations Committee unanimously endorsed key legislation that is part of that balance-of-powers skirmish: HJR 18, a constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature to call itself into a special session.

Now, only the governor has that authority.

It grows out of a fight last summer, when the governor refused to call lawmakers into session to set rules for the special election in the 3rd Congressional District to replace Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who resigned midterm.

Instead, Herbert set the rules himself — openly worrying that the Legislature might not allow candidates to qualify for the primary ballot by collecting signatures and would hand the choice of a nominee to state convention delegates.

Legislators fumed. Then Hughes in his speech opening this legislative session called for lawmakers to strengthen their powers against the governor.

HJR18, sponsored by House Majority Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, would allow the Legislature to call itself into a special session in case of “persistent fiscal crisis, war, natural disaster, or emergency in the affairs of the state.”

It does not define “emergency.”

A special session could be called if two-thirds of lawmakers agreed in polling by legislative leaders. And such a special session, if called, would have authority to appropriate only up to 1 percent of the state budget.

Wilson said 35 other state legislatures have the power to call themselves into special session.

Since HJR18 is a constitutional amendment, it must pass both houses by a two-thirds majority and be approved by voters in November’s election. The governor has no vote on the matter.

The resolution already passed 73-1 in the House and now goes before the full Senate.

Only one member of the Senate committee spoke about it on Friday. Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said it was a “common-sense” proposal, and “it is a reasonable thing to empower” lawmakers to call themselves into session.

After such short and favorable debate, Wilson joked, “I like this committee. I’m going to have all my bills come here.”


Feb. 23: Another slap in governor-Legislature power struggle: Proposal to allow lawmakers to call themselves into special sessions

By Lee Davidson

As part of a continuing power struggle between Gov. Gary Herbert and the Legislature, House Majority Leader Brad Wilson on Friday introduced a constitutional amendment, HJR18, to allow legislators to call themselves into special session.

Currently, only the governor has such power.

That separation-of-powers issue fueled a fight last summer when Herbert refused to call the Legislature into session to set rules for the special election in the 3rd Congressional District to replace Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who resigned.

Instead, Herbert set the rules himself — openly worrying that the Legislature might not allow candidates to qualify for the primary ballot by collecting signatures and handing the choice of a nominee to state convention delegates.

Legislators fumed, and House Speaker Greg Hughes in his opening speech this session called for part-time lawmakers to seek more power against the full-time chief executive.

One of the resulting bills calls for the sort of special election rules that Herbert feared: scrapping a primary election and having the party nominee selected by delegates.

That would have changed the result of last year’s election. Party delegates nominated ultra-conservative former state Rep. Chris Herrod. But more moderate John Curtis qualified for a primary by collecting signatures, and eventually won easily.

Now, as previously promised, Wilson, R-Kaysville, introduced the constitutional amendment to allow legislators to call themselves into session. It would have to pass by two-thirds majorities in both houses and be approved by voters in the November election.

“It narrows why the Legislature may call itself into special session in several ways,” Wilson said. It allows such sessions in case of “persistent fiscal crisis, war, natural disaster, or emergency in the affairs of the state.”

It does not define what an emergency may be.

A special session could be called if two-thirds of members agreed in polling by legislative leaders.

“We cannot appropriate more than 1 percent of the state budget” in a self-called special session, Wilson said. “We can’t come back within 30 days of the general session adjourning. So basically we have to finish our work in the general session, including passing a budget.”

Herbert’s spokesman, Paul Edwards, said the governor is scrutinizing the measure.

“We’re looking at this very carefully. Whenever we amend the constitution, we need to be exceedingly careful to ensure that we avoid unintended consequences.”

Some other bills are also pending that could increase lawmaker’s power against the governor.

One bill, HB175, would create an investigative Oversight Committee to probe executive agencies. It has died twice this session — once in committee and once on the House floor — but leaders have revived it and it again is pending in the House.

Another bill, HB198, would make clear that the Legislature may request and receive legal opinions from the attorney general without interference from the governor.

The Legislature requested one last year about the legality of Herbert’s actions on the special election, but Herbert convinced Attorney General Sean Reyes to withhold it until after the election. Herbert contended Reyes had already acted as his attorney on the matter, and also giving lawmakers an opinion would violate attorney-client privilege.

Another bill still advancing, SB171, would give the Legislature power to go to court to defend any state law, not relying on the attorney general.