Utah voters should resist the Legislature’s latest power grab, Robert Gehrke writes

Constitutional Amendment A would remove a significant limitation on a Legislature that has eroded too many checks and balances already.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

This will probably come as a surprise to many, but sometimes I screw up.

It happens, and eventually, I’ll write a column about all the times when my first instincts were wildly off the mark. But this piece is about just one of those times and trying to keep it from happening again.

Over the last week or so I’ve been asked a few times about Constitutional Amendment A, which showed up on the 2022 midterm ballot without getting much attention. I’ll be honest, I had forgotten about it until my ballot arrived.

Here’s the background: Back in 2017, the Legislature and then-Gov. Gary Herbert got into a squabble over the process that would be used to replace Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who retired to spend more time with his family — the Fox News family, I guess.

Because the law was unclear, the governor thought he could fill in the gaps on the replacement process. The Legislature wanted to convene a special session so it could give the more extremist delegates the power to pick the replacement, but under Utah’s Constitution, only the governor could call such a session and Herbert refused to do so.

Lawmakers seethed and threatened to sue the governor, but ultimately didn’t.

What they did do is develop a plan to revise the Utah Constitution so, in the future, they could call themselves into session in certain emergency situations without the governor’s blessing. In 2018, voters approved the amendment and I was one of the people advocating for it.

It didn’t make sense that a renegade governor could block the Legislature on a whim, and the conditions where lawmakers could use that power — “because of a fiscal crisis, war, natural disaster, or emergency in the affairs of the state” — seemed limited enough the power wouldn’t be abused.

And that’s where I screwed up.

Since 2019, the Legislature has convened these “emergency” sessions several times when they don’t see eye-to-eye with the governor. The problem is, once convened, they can lard up the agenda with measures that clearly not related to “fiscal crisis, war, natural disaster or emergency in the affairs of the state.”

(Gabrielle Baquero | The Salt Lake Tribune) Constitutional Amendment A as it appears on a ballot.

Bills passed in these “emergency” sessions include: Rescinding a tax break on rail fuel and using the money to upgrade railroad crossings; fixing sloppy, slapdash legislation from a previous session that nearly let the town of Hideout snatch land from the neighboring county without giving the county a say; in a punitive swipe, stripping significant emergency power from the governor; changing zoning rules for vape shops near schools; letting barber and cosmetology courses be taught online; adopting a resolution urging fiscal responsibility; demanding more money from the federal government to compensate for federal land ownership in the state; lowering the qualifications required to be director of the Health Department; and creating a scholarship fund for law enforcement officers.

Merits of these bills aside, lawmakers have pulled a bait-and-switch: They decide something is an emergency and then do whatever they want without having to even consult with the governor, as they had done for more than 100 years prior.

Earlier this year I wrote about how the Legislature has become a veritable vortex of power, stripping authority from governors, local governments, counties, school boards and anyone else that stands in its way. That 2018 amendment, in hindsight, was among the more brazen power grabs.

Now they want to expand on it, which finally gets us to the amendment on the ballot this year.

When lawmakers seized the power to convene unilateral special sessions, there was a limitation that they could only revise a total of 1% of the amount of the state budget — $260 million of a $26 billion budget.

That’s too constraining for their liking — never mind that they could convene a new special session every day until they had completely rewritten the entire budget — so they want to be able to spend five times that amount, more than $1 billion at a time, and not count any federal funds spent or reductions toward that total.

The amendment got just a few minutes of discussion when it sailed through the Legislature in 2021 and the only pushback was from a handful of conservative lawmakers who I rarely agree with, but in this case, resisted the trend toward a full-time Legislature with expansive power.

Rep. Brad Last, R-St. George, justified it at the time saying that the pandemic showed them that they needed more room to maneuver. “I think it’s amazing that right after we got that ability to call ourselves into special session we had to use that power and realized we didn’t have quite enough flexibility,” he said.

He might as well have said that: once lawmakers got that power, they used it and realized they didn’t have quite enough. So they want more.

Where does it stop?

The reason the governor was involved in the first place was so each branch would limit the power of the other. It’s a system of checks and balances that the Legislature is continually eroding, leaving a body that is virtually unchecked and becoming more and more unbalanced.

Only voters can hold back this power creep. So this time, I won’t make the same mistake I did before. I’m voting no on the latest power grab and I hope everyone who is wary of a state government wielding unfettered, unstoppable power does the same.