Lawmakers moving forward with proposed constitutional change to allow the legislature to call themselves into special session

GOP leaders in the Utah House and Senate are going forward this session with a constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature to call itself into a special session, even if the governor doesn’t want one.

But, is told, they have decided not to proceed with a bill explicitly stopping the governor from spending money for programs other than what lawmakers want.

Last spring, ahead of the resignation from of Rep. Jason Chaffetz from Congress, Herbert, and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox – the state’s official election officer – decided to set up the process for a special House election, as allowed under Utah law.

GOP and Democratic legislative leaders complained, saying the Legislature should decide how such special elections are set.

They asked Herbert to call them into special session to do so.

He declined.

(GOP leaders then asked GOP Attorney General Sean Reyes to give them an opinion on whether Herbert had the power to just set the election himself – which turned into a whole other fight between the branches of government.)

Under Utah’s current Constitution, only the governor can call special sessions and only he sets the agenda.

So, under the direction of House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, the House and Senate started studying a constitutional amendment to allow lawmakers to call themselves into a special session under certain circumstances.

Wilson told on Monday that he’s firming up his proposed amendment, to be introduced soon.

It would say that if two-thirds of both the House and Senate – upon polling by leaders – say they want to come into a special session, one will be set.

The governor would have no official say – although language would be kept in the Constitutional allowing him to call a special session, as he can now.

Wilson’s language says lawmakers could call themselves into SS only for “extraordinary” reasons. But that isn’t much defined.

“It will be decided” by the two-thirds polling of House and Senate members on whether the topic is “extraordinary.”

Wilson said 35 of 50 states now allow their Legislatures to call themselves into special session.

“I’ve done some research,” said Wilson. “Such sessions are called, but rarely.”

He believes the Utah House and Senate will adopt his amendment by the two-thirds required. And he thinks voters will approve it in November’s election.

The governor doesn’t have veto power over constitutional amendments – although he can speak against them, as he has on this issue.

The second issue – “signing letters” — surfaced last year, as reported by UtahPolicy in a manner drawing the ire of Herbert.

After the 2017 Legislature, Herbert sent several so-called “signing letters” to GOP leaders, two of which were clear instructions to the State Board of Education and the state trust lands, telling each independent entity to spend some money differently than lawmakers instructed in budget bills.

“We are not” moving forward with legislation on “signature letter” topics, Wilson told UtahPolicy on Monday.

“We are going to be more careful about our intent language,” that often accompanies specific appropriations, he said.

In short, lawmakers are going to attempt to figure out programs that the governor may not like, and then make sure via intent language that he is specifically instructed to spend monies on those programs – and not be tempted to write a “signing letter” instructing the money be spent not at all, or in a different way.

“He can always use his line-item veto power” to strike down a specific appropriation, noted Wilson.

In fact, that is what Herbert did a few years ago concerning to so-called “Top Chef” TV program in public school culinary classes.

He line-item vetoed it.

GOP leaders objected, and an agreement was worked out – the program was funded.

The next year – as they sometimes do – lawmakers got cagey and wrapped the “Top Chef” appropriation into other school items that Herbert wanted.

There was no “Top Chef” line item for Herbert to veto.

So he issued a “signing letter” requesting the State Board of Education spend the “Top Chef” money on other culinary programs. The board declined, and “Top Chef” stayed funded – but leaders were upset over Herbert’s attempt.

We’ll see what kind, if any, “signing letters” will come from the governor after lawmakers adjourn March 8.