Earlier this week, Utah Policy published an article by Bob Bernick about a handful of letters Gov. Gary Herbert issued as he signed legislation into law this past spring.
The article is interesting in that it attempts to stir up controversy because the Governor was thorough and transparent related to the bill signing process -- something the public and the press have in the past genuinely appreciated. Moreover, it feels like “old news,” given the letters were signed over six months ago. Unfortunately, Mr. Bernick greatly mischaracterized the Governor’s letters, describing them as letters expressing the Governor’s “intent to spend the money differently than what the Legislature approved of.”
Contrary to what Bernick insinuates, not one of the letters suggests that our administration will do anything that conflicts with legislative intent. There is no effort to “impound funds,” or stoke tensions with the Legislature. Bernick’s characterization is so erroneous I have to question whether he actually read the letters attached to his article. Please take a look yourself.
So what are these “signing letters”? They are the Governor’s way to clearly, quickly, and transparently let the legislature know there is an area of concern that may need to be worked through in the future. Some of the letters explained, as constitutionally required, the Governor’s reasons for vetoing a bill, some explained why he allowed a bill to go into law without his signature, and some expressed specific concerns regarding expenditure of taxpayer funds.
For example, as he signed into law a bill that provided ongoing funding for a preschool program that had been run for several years as a pilot program, Governor Herbert shared his desire to clarify -- in the future -- the rationale and strategy behind continuing this “pilot program” as well as the multiple other preschool programs now supported with ongoing state taxpayer dollars. He asked that we coordinate these programs and use funds in the most efficient and effective ways possible.
It is true that Governor Herbert used some of these letters to express his thoughts about good budgeting practices -- he does not shy away from that. So, he suggested that a line item for funds intended to improve the graduation of student athletes at Utah universities be carefully evaluated for its effectiveness. He expressed concern about using intent language in the Fiscal Year 2018 budget to prioritize spending in the Fiscal Year 2019 budget. “If the Legislature intends to appropriate $9,000,000 next year to the Employability to Careers pilot program,” said the Governor, “it should do so through the course of the regular budget process.”
How do such statements thwart the intent of the legislature? Would it be preferable to keep the Governor’s concerns secret from constitutional stakeholders? Is there some reason the Governor should be limited to only sharing his thoughts verbally? Is there a reason he should avoid creating a clear, transparent and permanent record of his views as the state’s chief executive?
The Governor has also sent a handful of letters to the legislature expressing his thoughts about those pieces of legislation that he allowed to go into law without his signature. It seems that enquiring minds would want to know why the Governor did not wish to affix his signature to a law. It flies in the face of reason to suggest that such statements have the effect of acting against the will of the legislature, when they are in fact explaining the reason the Governor is allowing the legislature’s prerogative to go into law despite the concerns.
The Governor works closely with our legislature to identify and resolve his concerns early on in the process. As a result, he vetoes very few bills. Nevertheless, when the legislature passes an entire state budget and 535 bills in a 45 day period, there are bound to be some concerns remaining at the end of the day. Why should the Governor refrain from expressing those? Mr. Bernick certainly doesn’t.
To paraphrase Mr. Bernick himself: Can it be that there is really nothing new in journalism, the old just gets repackaged? Sensationalizing the discrepancies between the executive and the legislature is a simple narrative. And given the inherent tensions in our system of governance, there are occasional differences to report. But Governor Herbert’s signing letters don’t rise to that level. They are a practical way to make sure that salient issues raised by legislation are quickly identified, communicated and memorialized. They do not create some mechanism for spending in any way other than how funds are specifically appropriated. It was irresponsible of Bernick to mischaracterize and then sensationalize their contents.