Bob Bernick’s notebook: Turf battle

While the four citizen initiatives struggle to get their voter signatures to make the November ballot, there is one major item that is already going before voters. 

The Utah Legislature – fighting against GOP Gov. Gary Herbert over the separation of powers turf – has put on the November ballot a constitutional amendment.

Now, Utah citizens can’t change the state Constitution via citizen initiative.

The only way for citizens to change their most fundamental governing document is for the state House and Senate to pass such an amendment by a two-thirds vote in each house, and for citizens to ratify that amendment by majority vote at the polls.

Currently, the Constitution says only the governor may call lawmakers into a special session.

And only he can set the agenda.

A year ago, lawmakers wanted Herbert to call a special session so they could decide the election process to replace Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.

Chaffetz was about to resign his seat only six months into his new term to spend more time with his young family and become a guest commentator on national Fox News.

Republicans in the Legislature wanted to set up a delegate-only nomination process in the 3rd District.

Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the state’s official elections officer, wanted to set up a nomination process much like SB54 – which would allow for candidates from any party to get on their party’s primary ballot by gathering voter signatures, or taking the delegate convention route, or both at the same time.

There were unhappy feelings on Capitol Hill over the matter.

Since Herbert did not call a special session, lawmakers didn’t have a say.

Now, they could have anticipated a vacancy in the U.S. House from Utah and passed a law outlining the special election process.

In fact, when rumors 18 months ago were running high that U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, might be named Air Force secretary by newly-elected Donald Trump – and so step down from the House – a bill was introduced in the 2017 Legislature setting up a delegate convention route.

But Republicans in the Utah House and Senate couldn’t agree on the process, and the bill died the last night of that session.

Angry at Herbert, lawmakers in the 2018 45-day general session passed several laws and the constitutional amendment dealing with legislative powers.

Herbert vetoed two of the bills – and in a rare move, the GOP-controlled Legislature overrode both of them last month.

Herbert doesn’t get an official say in a constitutional amendment – since they must pass by a two-thirds vote, the same supermajority of a gubernatorial override.

In any case, Herbert opposes the amendment and will speak against it in public debate as November’s vote nears.

I say the amendment should pass.

And for this simple equal powers argument:

— Herbert, head of the executive branch, doesn’t have to ask the Legislature nor the judiciary branch permission to do his daily job.

— The judges don’t have to ask the Legislature or the governor to do their job.

— So why should the part-time lawmakers have to get the governor’s approval to do their job?

Currently, the only time the Legislature can take official action is for 45 days, from late January to early March, when the Constitution says they will be in their regular, annual general session.

Out of that limited time frame, lawmakers can’t take any official action.

They can’t pass a bill.

They can’t amend a budget.

Or spend any money.

How would the judges like it if they had to ask the Legislature if they could hear this or that case?

How would Herbert like it if he had to ask the Judiciary if he could take a week of vacation or hire this or that person as the secretary in Natural Resources?

Utah has one of the shortest general sessions in the nation – just 45 days.

Outside of that time frame, if the governor doesn’t call them into a special session, the 104 part-time lawmakers can’t take any official action.

The amendment lists several instances when lawmakers can call themselves into a special session.

They can’t come into session for 60 days after the general session ends. That stops them from just extending the general session if they can’t decide on a budget or other critical issue.

They can only call themselves into a special session for specific instances – like a war or natural disaster.

But the amendment also says lawmakers can come into a session for an “emergency.”

It doesn’t define “emergency.” And there’s a reason for that – it gives lawmakers broad authority to call itself into session – which is the whole idea of the amendment.

And that is a good thing.

Utah doesn’t want a full-time Legislature.

We shouldn’t have lawmakers meddling into the executive branch willy-nilly all year long.

But the Legislature is the duly elected representatives of the people.

And they should be able to do their work as needed – unfettered by the executive branch — no matter what time of year that may be.