Bob Bernick’s notebook: The sticky politics of a veto override session

Part of the internal Utah legislative politics these days, after the 2018 general session, is this:

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, and House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, are both retiring the end of this year.

And they no longer need to get along with GOP Gov. Gary Herbert.

However, Niederhauser, especially, wants to get along with the governor because that’s the kind of guy he is.

Hughes, not as much, since he’s looking towards the 2020 GOP gubernatorial race and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is doing so, as well.

So a Hughes/Cox match-up is likely – and Cox will have to run on Herbert’s record, since he is part of that political administration.

Point is, as House and Senate Republicans are now being polled to see if they want to come into a veto override session, not only will the issue play out over what bills Herbert vetoed, but the personal politics of Niederhauser and Hughes, as well.

I remember back in the days of GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt. There was a Senate president who proclaimed to several colleagues that as long as he was president there would not be a veto override session – because he was a personal supporter of Leavitt.

That led to some real frustration among House Republicans and the then speaker. Because those folks wanted at least a level playing field on override decisions – they didn’t want one powerful senator telling them yes or no on even coming into an override session.

But you know what?

There was not an override session during that time frame.

Now, Herbert vetoed two bills this year that directly have to do with the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches.

And one of those bills was the result of a spat last year between Herbert and GOP legislators over the governor’s refusal to call lawmakers into a special session so they could decide the rules on a required mid-term election in the U.S. 3rd District House race.

As I’ve said before, I believe Herbert and Cox, the state’s election officer, did the right thing: They set up a dual-pathway process following SB54 that allowed candidates to gather voter signatures to make the party primary ballot, or take the delegate convention route, or do both at the same time.

Some legislative Republicans wanted the GOP delegates alone to pick the new congressman. If a special session had approved that single route, today we’d have archconservative Chris Herrod in the office, not the more moderate Republican John Curtis – who won the primary even though voted down in convention, and coasted in the final election.

So Herbert’s mid-term election process really made a difference in who got to pick the new congressman – Republican rank-and-file voters or delegates.

(By the way, there will be another Curtis/Herrod match-up this year, as both filed again for the seat.)

In theory, two-thirds of the members in each body must approve of an override vote in order for the president and speaker to call such a session.

But there reportedly has been some fudging in the past – with a former speaker declining to give an exact member count, just saying that the votes were there for an override.

The Senate didn’t want to do such a session, so no override session was called that year.

In any case, unlike a formal vote on a bill, there is no public accounting of who wanted an override session, and who didn’t – in theory to protect the members from anger from the governor if they wanted an override session, but none was called, so there was no formal, public vote on vetoed bills.

If a veto override session is called by legislative leaders, all vetoed items – bills or budget line items – are up for votes by the House and Senate. A two-thirds majority in each body is needed to override a veto.

The two main vetoed bills under consideration are HB198, which would force the attorney general to give the Legislature a legal opinion should leaders ask for one, and SB171, which would allow the Legislature to become a legal party in court should someone sue the state over a law or budget item lawmakers passed.

Both bills passed both houses with more than two-thirds majorities during the general session.

So some lawmakers would have to change their votes for Herbert’s vetoes to stand up, should an override session be called.

My guess is we will see a veto override session in April – the first one in some time.

After all, neither Niederhauser nor Hughes need court Herbert’s good opinion any more.