Proposed constitutional amendment would increase money lawmakers can spend and cut in a special session

Lawmakers say current rules tied their hands too much when adjusting the budget during the pandemic.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Utah lawmakers are pushing a constitutional amendment that would allow them to spend, and cut more money from the budget during a special session. This March 14, 2019, file photo shows the Utah House in session.

Legislators want to ask Utah voters to loosen their purse strings a little under a proposed constitutional amendment designed to tweak the rules for some special legislative sessions.

As it stands, when lawmakers call themselves into a special session, the amount of money they can add to or cut from the budget during those sessions is limited to 1% of the total amount appropriated in the previous fiscal year. HJR12 increases the amount of money they can spend but places no limit on how much they can slash from the budget.

In 2018 Utah voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing lawmakers to call themselves into a special session during an emergency. In practical terms, if this new amendment is approved, legislators could spend about $1 billion during an emergency but could slash budgets to the bone if needed. Any federal money coming into the state related to the emergency would not be subject to those limits.

Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, said budget-cutting last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic brought that limitation into stark focus.

“This last year we had a $20 billion budget. When we called ourselves into special session, we were limited to adjustments of $200 million. We realized after we had gone down the road a bit we needed to do considerably more than that,” said Last.

As a result, legislative leaders had to ask then-Gov. Gary Herbert to call them into a special session so they could do what they needed because of those limits.

Last said he’s sensitive to the fears that this could be another step along the path to the Utah Legislature becoming a de facto full-time body, but the changes are needed.

“I still think this a fairly conservative limit, but this gives us the ability to do what we need to do to in an emergency,” he explained. The bill has already passed the House with the two-thirds vote needed. If it is approved by a two-thirds margin in the Senate, it would go on the November 2022 ballot.