Lawmakers mulling calling themselves into special session to fix budget problems from coronavirus pandemic

Utah Capitol 30

Gov. Gary Herbert said last week he would call Utah lawmakers into a special session by the end of April so they address the worsening economy from the coronavirus pandemic. It may happen sooner than that.

Several legislative sources tell that there’s a push from within the ranks of Republican lawmakers to have the legislature call itself into a special session because of the emergency situation from the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2018, Utah voters approved a change to Utah’s Constitution giving the legislature the power to call a special session during an emergency if ⅔ of the members of both houses vote in favor. Previously, only the governor had that authority.

If lawmakers do call an emergency special session, it would be the first time they have used that authority since the amendment passed 18 months ago.

Calling themselves into a special session, rather than letting Gov. Herbert do it, gives lawmakers a big advantage, allowing them to control the agenda. If the governor calls the session, lawmakers can only consider the topics he decides to put on the call.

“The Legislature controls the purse strings, so there’s a growing thought we should be the ones who respond to this issue, not the Governor,” said one Republican lawmaker who asked to remain anonymous. is told that Republican leaders in the House and Senate seem supportive of the idea, but the push for lawmakers to call their own special session is coming from the rank and file within both bodies, not leaders.

“There are some serious budget issues we need to address, and it would be ideal to do that sooner rather than later,” said one Republican member of the House.

Utah mirrored the federal government to move the tax filing date to July 15, which will shift some expected revenue from this fiscal year to next, and lawmakers must make some changes to the budget to compensate. As unemployment begins to rise, income tax collections will fall as a result. Rising joblessness will increase the strain on the state’s Medicaid program as many of those who lose their employer-provided health insurance will look to the state’s newly expanded program for health coverage. 

Lawmakers say several options are on the table during the upcoming session, but the primary remedy for the state’s looming budget problems.

The upcoming special session, no matter who calls it, will be unique in Utah’s history as lawmakers figure out how to keep their members safe from the spread of the coronavirus. It is likely at least some of the session, if not all of it, will be held remotely. Lawmakers approved a rule change at the end of the 2020 session allowing them to hold meetings without being physically at the capitol in the case of an emergency. 

The earliest lawmakers could call themselves into session would be this coming Saturday, April 11. The constitutional amendment approved by voters giving them special session authority prohibits legislators from exercising that power within 30 days of a general session. 

Lawmakers are also considering whether to override any of Governor Herbert’s vetoes he issued last week at the end of the bill signing period, but that’s not as pressing of an issue as fixing the budget.

“We need to deal with Special Session and budget first. We don’t have to do a veto override until May 11 so we have not even started that process,” said House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper.

There could be a political element to this as well. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, one of the frontrunners for the GOP nomination to replace Gov. Herbert, has been front and center throughout the current crisis as he is heading up the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Legislative sources suggest that some lawmakers who back other candidates in the race don’t want to give Herbert and Cox another opportunity to take the lead during what should be the purview of lawmakers.