Compromise over how to fill Utah congressional vacancies advances

After lawmakers choked a bit on it last week, a long-fought compromise is finally moving forward about how to fill vacancies when a member of Congress resigns or dies.

That comes after years of squabbling between Gov. Gary Herbert and the Legislature — including a veto last year — that began with the 2017 resignation of Rep. Jason Chaffetz and disagreements on how elections should proceed to replace him.

The new compromise, HB17, would take away a key power of the governor: his current ability to choose by himself the temporary replacement for any vacant U.S. Senate seat. Instead, the governor could choose that replacement 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 U.S. 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.

The House Government Operations Committee voted 7-2 on Tuesday to advance the compromise to the full House. The two no votes came from Democrats who dislike that the bill could allow a GOP Legislature to nominate a possibly weak temporary replacement for a Democratic senator, instead of allowing party delegates to make the decision.

The last Utah Democrat in the U.S. Senate was the late Frank Moss, who was defeated by Republican Orrin Hatch in 1976.

Tuesday’s vote came after the committee last week decided not to act on the compromise, with members saying they wanted to think over the proposed changes.

It’s sponsor, Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantville, argued Tuesday that it was the best compromise that the governor, House and Senate have been able to hammer out over three years.

“Since 2017, we’ve tried every other option,” he said. “We finally sat down at a table with the governor, with the House and the Senate, and we said, ‘This is what we can finally live with now.’”

He added, “It may not be what each of you would select if you were at the table. But it’s something I think will work.”

Herbert’s spokeswoman, Anna Lehnerdt, said last week 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.

Years of sparring over how to fill vacancies erupted after Chaffetz resigned just months after his 2016 reelection. He was later replaced in a special election by Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, the former Provo mayor.

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 by gathering signatures and/or competing for the nomination at 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.

A move is starting again this year to possibly replace the 2014 law that allows qualifying for the primary ballot by collecting signatures. Nelson told the committee that if that is successful, he is willing to amend his bill so that any special election procedures to fill vacancies would mirror procedures used in regular elections.

To fill a U.S. 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 a special election.