Jonathan E. Johnson: If the Utah Legislature called them ‘extraordinary sessions’ we might have fewer of them

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, smiles as her bill to ban police officers from using "knee-on-neck" chokeholds passes the House, 69-5 during the morning session of the Utah Legislature's Fifth Special Session on Thursday, June 18, 2020.

On May 14, the Utah Governor’s Office issued a proclamation notice of a May 19 “special session” of the Legislature. Twenty-two items of business were on the legislative agenda.

My reason for writing is not to contest any single agenda item. I just want to raise a question about the use of the term “special session.” Let me explain.

Ours is a limited legislative calendar. Its duration is 45 days. At that point, the gavel drops and, supposedly, we are done until the year following. Naturally, there might arise occasions to have an additional session or two — errors, emergencies, other things. In other words, there are reasons to have the Legislature meet after the general session. I’m not questioning that.

Yet, it seems that we are increasingly seeing numerous “special sessions” throughout the year: more and more sessions, with longer and longer agendas.

Utah is a growing state and maybe 45-days is inadequate. We might consider extending the session. But what we should not do is come to expect that “special sessions” become common practice. Why?

First, a short session does not allow for much public input. Legislation is often complex. Sessions, maybe only a day long and announced of short notice, do not allow for much debate or consideration of alternatives. Already cut deals often precede the day, and while we can rely on the good judgment of our legislators and our governor to use discretion and not put on the agenda controversial items, it is not a good practice to give only four or five days’ notice before a session — just in case things are not as they seem in the exercise of that discretion.

Second, it encourages citizen apathy. I mean, what average person can digest what is going on in 22 different legislative proposals, or even understand the direction of each from the short summaries contained in the proclamation?

Third, and most important, if there is an objection or something that needs debate, who can mount a campaign in time to have their voice heard, especially when the shortened time necessitates beforehand consensus or deal-making?

My suggestion is simple: Instead of “special,” let’s call these “extraordinary sessions.”

That’s appropriate because that’s exactly the word the Utah Constitutional first uses. It reads: “On extraordinary occasions, the Governor may convene the Legislature by proclamation” (emphasis added). There it is. True, the section uses the term “special” later on, but I ask the governor to consider re-employing the term first coined by our Constitution: “Extraordinary.” Also, the term “extraordinary sessions” appears later in the same section. Seem like a small thing? No.

“Special” these days has a much different connotation than “Extraordinary.” “Extraordinary” gets us back to the understanding that these sessions are to be rare. It guards against the more typical notion that these sessions have now become commonplace or might be employed as an end-run around our limited sessions where public input and debate are openly invited and expected.

The use of that term, “extraordinary session,” may also promote a trend towards fewer of these sessions in future. And it might encourage more careful attention to error — avoidance and mistakes during the general session, though understandably, these do occur and need correction during extraordinary sessions.

Most of all, the use of the term “extraordinary session” is more accurate — and it will naturally encourage fewer of these sessions. It will move against laxity in modern public regard of the important functions of politics and against growing trends of public apathy.

We have a new governor. I invite him and our capable new lieutenant governor and all our legislative leaders to test drive a new term for these sessions — the term first used in our Constitution for these sessions: “Extraordinary.”

What’s in a name? Turns out, it could be quite a lot.

Jonathan Johnson Courtesy Photo

Jonathan E. Johnson III is Utah businessman and former candidate for governor.

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