Utah legislative panel chokes on compromise about filling congressional vacancies

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) People cast their ballots at the U of U Marriott Library during election day, Nov. 5, 2019.

After years of squabbling — including a veto last year — legislators and Gov. Gary Herbert thought they reached a compromise on how to fill congressional vacancies, like the one created when then Rep. Jason Chaffetz resigned midterm in 2017.

But a committee choked on the deal Friday.

The House Government and Operations Committee voted unanimously to “move to the next item on the agenda,” and not pass the compromise, HB17. But it is expected to come back to the issue, perhaps next week.

“I just want to have more time with this,” said Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, who made the motion. Others agreed that it is a big change from previous proposals, and they want more time to consider it more closely. “It’s still early in the session,” said Committee Chairman Marc Roberts, R-Salem.

The latest compromise would take away a key power of the governor: his current ability to choose by himself the replacement for any vacant U.S. Senate seat. Instead, the governor could make a temporary appointment only from a list of three people submitted by the Legislature.

The compromise also blocks something that conservative GOP legislators had sought: allowing party convention delegates to choose their nominee for a vacant House seat, and not permit a primary that would include candidates who qualify by collecting signatures. Herbert vetoed a bill last year because it would have mandated that.

Herbert’s spokeswoman, Anna Lehnerdt, said the governor can accept the new bill.

“At this time we feel the language in the bill strikes a good balance and is good for Utah voters,” she said.

Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, sponsor of the bill, also said — even though the committee disagrees for now — “This year, I think we have something we can live with.”

He noted that legislators and the governor worked on a compromise since Herbert vetoed the last bill, coming up with what “I think it is a good solution.”

Years of sparring over how to fill vacancies erupted after Chaffetz resigned in 2017 just a few months after his reelection to his 3rd Congressional District seat. He was later replaced in a special election by Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah.

State law was largely silent on how to fill that vacancy, so Herbert ordered an election under guidelines of a 2014 law that allows candidates to qualify for an initial primary election either by gathering signatures and/or competing for nomination by a party convention.

Herbert did that over objections of legislative leaders who wanted him to call a special session to allow them to enact new law governing such elections — and many wanted to allow GOP delegates (who tend to be more conservative than other Republicans) to choose their nominee without a primary.

To fill a House vacancy, the new bill calls for the governor to issue a proclamation within seven days to schedule a primary and general election to fill it.

Those elections generally would be held on the next municipal general election, a presidential primary or regular primary or general election. But a special election date could also be scheduled — if a special legislative session chooses to fund it.

Parties that allow signature gathering as a method to qualify for primaries in other elections must also allow it in the special election. Whoever is elected would serve until the end of the current term for which the vacancy exists.

The procedure to fill a Senate vacancy would be nearly the same, except the governor could appoint a temporary replacement who would serve until after the special election. The governor would choose from three names sent by the Legislature, who must be from the same party as the senator being replaced.

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, raised questions about whether it is wise to have the Legislature or party delegates send names to the governor. She noted that a GOP-controlled Legislature may not choose

strong Democratic nominees for possible appointment, for example.