Lawmakers fast-tracking proposed changes to Utah’s emergency response

Gov. Cox says he hopes lawmakers keep the best interests of Utahns at heart

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Gov. Spencer Cox listens to a question presented in Spanish during a news conference in Salt Lake City, Feb. 11, 2021. The Legislature is barreling ahead on changing state law to rein in emergency powers of the governor and public health officials.

A proposed overhaul of the state’s emergency powers law is barreling ahead in the Utah Legislature, with a committee hearing set Thursday, just two days after the bill was made public.

Lawmakers say the rewrite is needed as the original law, adopted in 1953, never envisioned a long-term emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic. Utah has essentially been under a rolling emergency declaration since March of last year because of the virus, with those emergencies being renewed by the governor every 30 days.

Lawmakers have been digging into the issue for six months, with small bipartisan working groups in the House and Senate suggesting changes to the law. There’s one phrase legislators kept returning to during a Wednesday news conference to discuss those changes: “checks and balances.”

“This is bringing transparency for our constituents. A lot of people throughout this COVID pandemic have had a lot of questions of how decisions are being made,” said Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City.

The result is SB195, which essentially preserves the full authority of the governor and public health officials to respond to an emergency for the first 30 days. But, if the emergency is to extend beyond that, then the Legislature gets involved.

“When we look at the emergency declaration, that’s really about giving legislative powers to the executive branch,” says House Assistant Majority Whip Val Peterson, R-Orem. “Which of those powers do we want to give to the executive branch and do it in such a way that we don’t hamstring them at all, so they still have the ability to respond to any emergency they might encounter.”

“For the first 30 days, the governor has pretty much open rein to do what he needs to do now. The same with the state health department or local health departments,” says Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City. “From that point on, we are trying to get the involvement of the Legislature and the public in the process.”

An emergency order could last beyond 30 days only if the Legislature approved the extension. It could not simply be extended by the governor. In fact, the proposal would block the governor from extending an emergency unilaterally. Lawmakers also would have the authority to override any emergency declaration by a majority vote, and the emergency could not then be reinstated by public health departments.

Vickers’ bill would create a new legislative committee with the power to review any requests to extend an emergency declaration beyond the initial 30-day period. If extending the emergency was a no-brainer, then there wouldn’t be much the committee needed to do and the Legislature could move forward with little delay.

“But, if they do need to meet, then they are required to take public input,” said Vickers, who noted there really wasn’t a way for the public to weigh in on the issue under the current law.

“They were weighing in on social media, but that’s not a very efficient way to weigh in with lawmakers,” he noted.

At the local level, county legislative bodies — commissions and councils — would have power to overturn a local emergency declaration by an executive or local health department, and would make a decision whether such an order could be extended beyond the initial 30 days.

Legislative leaders have been careful to not criticize former Gov. Gary Herbert who was responsible for responding to the early days of the pandemic, including stay-at-home orders, noting that he was making decisions based on the best data available. But, lawmakers have been eager for months to make changes to the emergency statute. Some were pushing to address the changes in a special session last year, but there simply wasn’t enough support.

Instead, lawmakers stress they’ve been taking a more deliberate approach to altering Utah’s response to emergency situations, and have been working with new Gov. Spencer Cox and his administration, specifically Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, a former state senator.

“They’ve been working with us and helped to make some refinements that are better,” said Vickers.

Cox and Henderson issued a joint statement in response to the legislation on Wednesday, expressing support for the process.

“The Legislature has an important role to play and we believe legislators do not want to hamper the state’s ability to respond to crisis situations. We’re still working through the details, but we’re confident the Legislature will keep the best interests of Utahns at heart,” they said.

But the political reality is if lawmakers can find enough support to pass the bill with a veto-proof majority, then objections from Cox wouldn’t be a deal killer. Vickers and other leaders have repeatedly said they are hoping the process remains a collaborative one.

The bill was set for a committee debate on Thursday. After that, backers expect full Senate consideration next week.