Bill limiting governor’s emergency powers wins final Senate OK and House will take it up next

Under the legislation, if a crisis lasts beyond 30 days, the Legislature could then weigh in on the situation.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, was commended by Senate leaders and a minority leader for Vickers' SB195 bill Feb. 16, 2021. The bill would rein in the emergency powers of the governor and state and local health departments, saying the state's current laws are not designed to grapple with long-term events like the pandemic.

It’s full speed ahead for the bill to limit the governor’s emergency powers during a long-term event, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.

SB195 moved forward in the Utah Senate on Monday unanimously and won final Senate approval Tuesday. The bill from Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, is a response to the continuous state of emergency the state has been under for almost a year in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

As previously reported, the bill would not impact the governor’s ability to respond to an emergency as it happens, but if the emergency declaration lasts beyond 30 days, then lawmakers could get involved. State and local health departments could do the same.

“We’ve looked back on what happened and asked ourselves the question, how can we do it better next time around? And, that’s a hard thing to do,” said Vickers.

Under the bill, if an emergency lasts beyond the 30-day limit, then the Legislature would weigh in with an emergency response committee, made up of current legislative leadership, plus other legislators who have experience relevant to the situation. For example, lawmakers with a health care background could be consulted during a long-term health emergency. If appropriate, that committee would solicit public input on what comes next.

“We wanted to get the public’s input and expertise on what’s going on with that particular emergency,” said Vickers. “Then we can make recommendations back to the Legislature.”

There’s also a motivation to maintain a check on the power of the governor. During the early days of the pandemic, when an emergency declaration from then-Gov. Gary Herbert was set to expire, lawmakers realized they had little recourse as he could just issue another immediately, which he did.

The bill would block the extension of a declaration, or the issuance of a new one, without the signoff of lawmakers.

“Not one citizen has had a voice in the policies that have been implemented since COVID began,” said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, saying the restrictions imposed because of the pandemic, including business closures and mask mandates, were never vetted by lawmakers.

“We are the citizen’s voice on policy. Not one citizen has had a vote on this floor of this body representing their voice on these long-term policies,” added Bramble.

Legislators have been careful to say Herbert responded appropriately to the pandemic and collaborated well with them, but they felt the monthslong emergency gave authority to the governor that should rightly belong to the Legislature.

There has been some controversy surrounding the legislation, which was made public less than two weeks ago. Gov. Spencer Cox, who has been negotiating with lawmakers over the bill, said last week there are changes he would like to see made to the legislation. He would not detail what those are, except suggesting the 30-day timeframe may need to be adjusted.

However, if lawmakers can muster a veto-proof vote in favor of the bill, and the Senate’s unanimous vote indicates there’s plenty of support, then Cox’s objections could be moot.

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, said he’s encountered misunderstanding about what the bill does from members of the public who think it is giving public authorities sweeping new powers to shut down businesses that some believe infringes on individual liberties.

“Until this pandemic, we had never seen this used on a mass portion of society or an entire state or entire segment of an economy. We have never seen it used on such a broad scale,” he said. “What we’re doing is incorporating that concept into this bill and defining it in such a way that when the Legislature does intervene, we have the scope of the powers we can use. It’s wholly constitutional and wholly appropriate.”

Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, worried the bill may hamstring the governor too much in responding to an emergency.

“We’re a part-time Legislature and the governor is given those powers because he’s a full-time administrator,” said Davis. “I think limiting the powers of the governor to 30 days really raises some questions that we need to rethink. Are 30 days really enough for the governor to respond?”