Gov. Spencer Cox suggests he wants some changes in Legislature’s plan to rein in his emergency powers

The new governor says he recognizes the power of the legislative branch to make changes but has urged leaders ‘to not overreact to something that happens every 100 years.’

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) In this Jan. 21, 2021, file photo, Gov. Spencer Cox delivers his State of the State address at the Capitol in Salt Lake City. Cox and legislative leaders have been talking privately about how to change the state's emergency powers act with more behind-closed-doors negotiating in the works.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday that he’s been closely involved in conversations about a bill seeking to rein in the emergency powers of the executive branch — but he wouldn’t say whether he supports its current form and suggested that he’s still negotiating changes to the proposal.

Cox said there have been “lots of changes made at our request” to SB195, which easily advanced through its first public hearing with a unanimous vote on Thursday. But he said behind-the-scenes discussions are ongoing.

“We’ll do those privately, and when the final version of that bill comes out, we’ll let you know whether we support it or not,” he told reporters during his monthly news conference in the studios of PBS Utah at the University of Utah. “I think that’s the better way to negotiate these and so we will continue to do that.”

Cox had declined to say anything publicly about the bill until Thursday.

Utah legislative leaders unveiled the bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers on Tuesday, and it has so far attracted support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Backers say the state’s current emergency powers law, enacted in the 1950s, is not designed to grapple with long-term events like the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill would make a number of significant changes to the handling of long-term crises, including limiting how long an emergency declaration remains in effect and granting authority to the Legislature to override those declarations.

Emergency orders could be extended beyond 30 days by the Legislature, but they must have a definite end date. If the emergency order was terminated by lawmakers, it could not be reinstated by public health departments.

Under the bill, a county legislative body — either a commission or council — also would be empowered to end a public health emergency declared by a local health department earlier than 30 days. And the bill would cap fines for individuals violating public health orders at $150, down from up to $10,000 currently.

Additionally, the bill says religious services can not be subject to more restrictive requirements than applied to other organizations or businesses.

“The one thing that you need to realize is that all the powers that are being exercised by the governor and executive branch or the health department during a long-term emergency are legislative powers,” Vickers told reporters earlier in the week. “And so it’s appropriate that we would have some oversight over those powers.”

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City and the Democratic whip in the Senate, also endorsed the concept of the bill, noting that she sees the proposal as moving decision-making to people who can be held accountable by the voters.

Pressed specifically on the 30-day requirement in the bill, Cox indicated that the timeframe is one of the items that remains under discussion.

“Whether 30 days is the right number or 60 days is the right number, there is a number in there and we’ll continue to work to figure out which is the right one,” he said.

Most states have some sort of check on executive emergency powers, according to a roundup by the National Conference of State Legislatures. It summarizes Utah’s by saying that the governor cannot extend an emergency declaration beyond 30 days without a resolution by the Legislature, but that hasn’t precluded the executive from doing so by issuing new orders.

The bipartisan group also said that legislatures in at least 37 states are considering bills or resolutions that would limit governors’ powers or executive spending during the COVID-19 pandemic or other emergencies.

Cox told reporters that he recognized and respected the ability of the Legislature to make changes to the emergency powers act and agrees that it did not contemplate long-term emergencies like a pandemic. But he noted that the executive branch has the the ability to move more quickly in a crisis than the legislative branch can and indicated that he’s urged lawmakers “to not overreact to something that happens every 100 years.”

“There’s nothing quick about what happens in the Legislature, although we do have a 45-day session and a lot happens in 45 days,” he said. “Some — like me — argue that too much happens within those 45 days but it’s a very, very important function and it is their function.”

Cox also said Thursday that he recognizes there were mistakes in the way the executive branch interfaced with the legislative branch in the early days of the pandemic and said he has tried to remedy those communication gaps as governor, including with more face-to-face conversations.

But while he committed to working with the Legislature on the bill moving forward, Cox also took aim at its leaders during his comments, arguing that they could have done more to address the threat of the coronavirus.

“I will remind the Legislature that they now have the ability to call themselves into session at any time and overrule any order that has been done from the very beginning,” he said. “They have that authority now. They don’t need a bill to change that. And I will also note that they failed to exercise that authority at almost every turn because they didn’t want to make these decisions either.”

The Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee endorsed SB195 on a 6-0 bipartisan vote Thursday. It now moves to the full Senate for consideration, where it looks as though it has smooth sailing.