Bob Bernick’s notebook: Utah lawmakers shouldn’t have to ask permission to do their job

A new poll by Dan Jones & Associates finds Utahns are split over a constitutional amendment that would give legislators the power to call themselves into a special session.

In my view, it’s crucial that voters pass this change.

Currently, the state Constitution gives special session calling authority only to the governor.

And only the governor sets a special session agenda.

It’s been that way since statehood in 1896, and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert – who opposes the amendment – says there’s no reason to change it.

Basically, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

But it is broken – and always has been.

Governors and Utah lawmakers just haven’t been motivated much in the past to deal with the change.

First off, the drafters of the Utah Constitution were not “divinely inspired,” as some claim the Founding Fathers were when the U.S. Constitution was drafted way back when.

Our state Constitution followed a number of other western states’ documents drawn up after the Civil War as new states were let into the Union, one at a time.

In fact, Utah was punished – if that is the right word – in several areas of our Constitution as federal lawmakers sought to make sure Mormons didn’t have too much freedom to mess with stuff, like polygamy and religious influence in state affairs.

Many other state Legislatures can call themselves into special session without their governor’s approval.

Taking away the specific reason for the GOP-controlled Utah Legislature’s reason to pass this change now – a fight between Herbert and Republican lawmakers over special rules for the election to fill the vacancy in the 3rd Congressional District last year – there are more important reasons that Utah lawmakers should have the ability to call themselves into session.

Foremost in my argument for passage is the balance of power.

Like the federal government – Utah’s form of state governance depends on a three-legged stool, the executive, judicial and legislative branches.

The executive branch – i.e., the governor – doesn’t need the permission of the other two branches to do his job.

Nor does the judiciary need permission to do its job.

Outside of the 45-day general session, why does the legislative branch need permission from the governor to do its job?

It shouldn’t.

Utah’s 45-day general session is one of the shortest among the states – meaning there is most of the calendar year when lawmakers can’t act on their own.

I certainly don’t want a full-time Legislature.

And while Herbert argues this amendment is a step in that direction, almost every year he calls lawmakers into a special session at least once – sometimes two or three times.

If he’s using special sessions to get legislative approval on this or that topic, why can’t elected legislators make the same accommodations to help Utah government operate effectively?

Herbert also worries that without a firm adjournment time, the general session would just slop over into a special session, with lawmakers reluctant to make hard decisions – especially about the budget – putting off those decisions into a special session.

Some states, like Idaho, have an indeterminate adjournment date, and do this now.

So, in Utah’s amendment is a provision that lawmakers can’t call themselves into a special session just after the general session ends.

There are other restrictions in the Utah amendment – aimed at keeping Utah a part-time Legislature.

Key among them: It would take two-thirds of the House and Senate to vote on a special session for one to be called.

Currently, Republicans hold more than two-thirds of the seats in both houses. But they have not always been so dominant.

And in the future, it could be that minority Democrats could block a special session call if they wished – thus helping keep highly partisan issues reserved for just the general session.

My argument is this:

If Herbert doesn’t have to ask the speaker of the Utah House when he can go to work in the morning.

If the Utah Supreme Court doesn’t have to ask the governor when they can meet and hear a case, then the Legislature shouldn’t have to ask the governor when they can meet, either.

The Utah House is elected every two years, with the half of the Senate up every two years in their four-year terms.

There is electoral oversight into how the Legislature operates, as it is.

Utah voters should amend the state Constitution to allow lawmakers to call themselves into a special session – and voters should hold them accountable if legislators abuse the newly-granted authority.