Alan Wessman: Let’s not expand a power that the Utah Legislature has misused

Proposed Amendment A would eliminate a necessary check on legislative power.

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) In this Aug. 20, 2020 file photo the Utah House of Representatives convenes for a special session of the Legislature at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City.

On the ballot this fall is a proposed amendment to the Utah Constitution. It seeks to expand a legislative power that has already been misused by the super majority. Voters should vote against it.

The amendment would expand fivefold how much money the Legislature can appropriate for spending when it calls itself into special session.

The Legislature’s power to call itself into special session is a very new one. Before 2018, only the governor could call a special session of the Legislature. This served as a check and balance on legislative power.

In 2018, voters approved a constitutional amendment to allow the Legislature to call itself into special session, but with certain important limits. It was supposed to be for exceptional circumstances: financial crisis, war, natural disaster or another emergency. The session could not be longer than 10 days. And the amount of money that could be appropriated during the session would be limited to 1 percent of the annual state budget. Sponsors of that amendment said at the time that this power should be rarely used, only “when there is an immediate need for action.”

The Legislature used this power to call itself into session twice in 2020 to deal with the pandemic, even though it could have allowed the governor to call the session. But legislative leaders didn’t limit the agenda to pandemic issues. They used this power to add to the agenda nonemergency issues like annexation, scholarships, tax changes and environmental rule-making.

And in 2021, House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President Stuart Adams called an “extraordinary session” of their chambers, not to deal with an emergency at all, but to vote on partisan nonbinding resolutions about guns and critical race theory, after Gov. Spencer Cox declined to add those items to the agenda of a special session he had called.

Each special session cost taxpayer money. Each special session, and especially the “extraordinary” one, included nonemergency matters, contrary to the intended limitation placed by the people of Utah on the exercise of this power.

Now the Legislature wants Utah voters to give it power to spend up to 5 percent of the annual budget when it calls itself into special session.

Voters should refuse. If the Legislature needs to allocate that kind of money, it should either do so in the regular session, or it should make the case to the governor to call a special session that allows it. But the super majority controlling the Legislature, in the short time it has had the power to call its own sessions, has already got a track record of misusing the power it has for purposes that voters did not approve. Why should that power be increased?

And because amendments to the Utah Constitution can only originate in the Legislature, it is nigh impossible for citizens to claw back powers granted to the legislature once given. They can only do so by electing legislators who are willing to limit their own powers.

When a branch of government misuses its power, we should not remove further checks and balances on that branch. Our super majority Legislature is already too powerful and its leaders too willing to exceed the few limitations constraining them. Utah, vote against Constitutional Amendment A.

Alan Wessman

Alan Wessman is the United Utah Party candidate for Utah State House District 64, in the Spanish Fork area.