Utah House passes congressional vacancy bill over objections of Democrats

In this Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018, photo, a voter drops off his ballot in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

A hard-won compromise over filling congressional vacancies in Utah took another step forward Tuesday, earning passage through the House of Representatives on a party-line vote.

The proposal seeks to resolve years of bickering that began in 2017 with the resignation of former Rep. Jason Chaffetz. The state law was largely silent on the process for replacing members of Congress and the governor and Legislature had different ideas about how to deal with this ambiguity.

“We said, ‘This is our job. Call us into special session so that we can provide some rules,’” Grantsville Republican Rep. Merrill Nelson told his colleagues on the House floor. “The governor refused.”

Since then, the legislative and executive branches have continued to disagree on the subject, with Gov. Gary Herbert last year vetoing legislation that would’ve set a process for picking congressional replacements. But in Nelson’s current bill, HB17, lawmakers and Herbert seem to have settled their longstanding spat.

To House Democrats, there was just one glaring problem: A provision that empowers the Legislature to handpick candidates for filling temporary U.S. Senate vacancies. Under Nelson’s bill, state lawmakers would compile a list of three names for the seat, and the governor would choose from it to make the final appointment.

Several Democrats objected that this process could create fairness issues, particularly if a Legislature dominated by one party were in charge of selecting Senate candidates for the other party.

“I sometimes wonder if perhaps the best three names to run for that office in the future will be the names put forward by this body,” said Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, who recommended leaving it to the central committees of each political party with picking the nominees for an interim appointment.

Alliance for a Better Utah, a group that advocates for good government and progressive policies, denounced Nelson’s bill based on similar concerns.

“GOP politicians are afraid that as Utah grows, it will grow into a purple state. That future is all but certain," Lauren Simpson, the alliance’s policy director, said in a prepared statement. "This bill is a brazen attempt to allow a Republican-controlled legislature to gatekeep future federal appointments. Instead of embracing Utah’s future, they’re trying to rig it in their favor from the outset.”

Nelson responded to Arent that he has “full confidence” the Legislature would choose the best candidates. He pointed out that the bipartisan legislative management committee would be responsible for preparing the initial list of names, under the process laid out by a companion bill. That resolution, HJR1, and HB17 both cleared the House by 58-16 votes that broke along party lines.

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) In this April 18, 2018, file photo, Republican Rep. Merrill Nelson speaks during a special session at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City.

Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, said giving the Legislature a role in picking temporary appointments “harkens a little back to the spirit of our founders and the Constitution,” which initially endowed state lawmakers with the power of selecting senators. That changed with the passage of the 17th Amendment, which established popular elections for choosing U.S. senators.

“Maybe it wasn’t by chance that this bill was numbered 17 as a companion to the 17th Amendment,” Nelson speculated.

Nelson’s bill calls for the governor to issue a proclamation to schedule a primary and general election to fill a House vacancy.

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.

Herbert’s spokeswoman has said the governor can accept Nelson’s bill, which will now head to the Senate for consideration.