Josh Kanter and Chase Thomas: Amendment A would give Legislature too much power

Big budget changes should be made in collaboration with the governor.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the Utah Senate conduct business during the final day of the Utah Legislature's 2022 general session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, on Friday, March 4, 2022,

As Utahns receive their ballots, we encourage them to join us in voting against Constitutional Amendment A.

The proposed amendment would significantly increase the amount of money that state lawmakers can add to, or cut from, the budget during emergency special sessions to which they are called by themselves, without collaboration with the governor. We believe this is another unnecessary legislative power grab that deteriorates constitutional checks and balances.

Utah voters may recall that after Rep. Jason Chaffetz retired in 2017, the Republican supermajority in the Utah Legislature and then-Gov. Governor Gary Herbert each had different views on how to fill his vacated congressional seat. Herbert refused to call the Legislature into special session, believing that existing law already laid out the process for the special election.

Stung over being ignored, the Legislature proposed a constitutional amendment, which was passed by voters in the 2018 midterm elections, that gave the speaker of the House and president of the Senate the power to call lawmakers into special session during emergencies, overriding the historical precedent that required the governor to call the Legislature into special session.

The amendment, which was intended only for emergency situations, limited the amount of money that lawmakers could spend during an emergency special session to 1% of the previous year’s budget (approximately $200 million based on a $20 billion budget).

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Legislature faced a choice as they sought to make tweaks to the budget, address COVID-19 policies and to accept $2.1 billion in federal funds - call themselves into session and be subject to the 1% limitation, or collaborate with the governor to call a special session which would not be subject to that limit.

The Legislature’s response to this situation demonstrated why the proposed constitutional amendment is unnecessary. At the beginning of the pandemic response, they called themselves into a special session and were able to make budget adjustments that were under the 1% threshold. When massive amounts of federal funding started flowing into the state that were over that threshold, they worked with the governor to issue a proclamation for a special session that was not subject to those same limitations. The process worked and a reasonable balance of power was protected.

However, rather than face the indignity of having to collaborate with the governor in such instances, now the Legislature, which believes the original amendment was too restrictive, is proposing Constitutional Amendment A, which would raise the cap on budgetary adjustments that lawmakers can make in such a special session from 1% to 5% of appropriations made during the previous fiscal year. Based on the current $26 billion state budget, that represents an increase from $260 million to $1.3 billion.

It would also exempt federal funds and budget cuts from the restrictions on the Legislature’s special session power. In essence, under their own authority and the guise of an emergency session, Constitutional Amendment A would give the Legislature the flexibility to make significant budget adjustments outside of their annual 45-day general sessions. All to avoid collaboration with the executive branch of government and all during a special session that occurs over the course of a single day without any public hearings.

We opposed the 2018 amendment giving the Legislature the power to call itself into special session as a step in the wrong direction, furthering the Legislature’s ongoing attempts to consolidate power in a single branch of government. Constitutional Amendment A is yet another step too far.

It’s an unnecessary expansion of the power of the Legislature that further weakens over 100 years of constitutional checks and balances. When lawmakers need to spend significant amounts of money during an emergency, they can continue to collaborate with another constitutional officer to get it done.

We urge voters to join us in saying no to the Utah Legislature and its unnecessary search for more power. Vote “NO” on Constitutional Amendment A.

Josh Kanter | Alliance for a Better Utah

Josh Kanter is the founder and board chair of Alliance for a Better Utah.

Chase Thomas

Chase Thomas is the executive director of Alliance for a Better Utah.