Bob Bernick’s notebook: Legislature puts pressure on Herbert’s coronavirus response

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While praising how he’s responded to the coronavirus outbreak, the Republican majorities in the Utah House and Senate, meeting in special session, are clearly moving to collar GOP Gov. Gary Herbert.

Two bills, HB3005 and SB3004, are aimed at making Herbert warn lawmakers before the governor issues emergency executive orders, in the first bill, and give legislative leaders input into when and how the state is opened up over the next few weeks or months, in the second bill.

And both clearly are attempts to reign in Herbert’s actions already taken, and/or future actions by the governor, concerning how Utah reacts to the coronavirus outbreak.

The motivation behind SB3004 comes from House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, is told, although it is officially sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem. Schultz is the House sponsor.

While HB3005, which says Herbert will give partisan leaders in both houses 48-hour notice before issuing an emergency executive order, is sponsored by the majority leaders in both bodies.

SB3004 sets up a “Public Health and Economic Response Act,” commission, with the Senate president and House speaker splitting the appointments with the governor. The commission will act quickly and doesn’t need to follow Open Meeting Act rules and regulations, including agenda public notices.

A ninth member is the executive director of the Utah Department of Health.

The bill says that by April 22, just a few days away, the commission will have already met and presented a plan to the governor that will manage opening up the state after the economic/health shutdown caused by the virus.

The plan also must include how testing of citizens will take place, tracking of those with the virus, how to communicate virus response information (Herbert and executive officials have been holding daily press briefings), allowing elective surgeries and restaurant re-openings, among other items.

If Herbert doesn’t do these things by April 30 — the end of his self-imposed Stay Safe, Stay Home voluntary (but highly recommended) actions — then Herbert must give a public accounting that explains his decisions for not doing so — along with supporting data for his lack of following the commission’s plan.

Of course, since these are bills, Herbert could veto them. But if they pass by two-thirds in each house (and one did in the House Thursday morning), that’s a clear indication that his veto could be overridden.

In debating and explaining HB3005 Thursday morning, GOP leaders were careful to praise Herbert’s actions.

Still, with a 48-hour notice to legislative bosses required before a gubernatorial executive order, it could be possible that lawmakers could be polled, called into a special session by leaders, and the governor’s anticipated executive order stopped. At the very least, a special session would have some time to consider the order after it’s 48-hour notice at a later date.

In speaker to the press later Thursday, Wilson said how the state acts with the virus outbreak isn’t just something that’s happening now — it could be months, even years, that Utah government leaders must deal with the health and economic fallout of the virus. Perhaps even after a vaccine is found.

With that long of a time frame, it’s only right that the legislative branch of government, which makes policy and sets budgets, is considered and in action, said Wilson.

But the really quick time frame in SB3006 — Herbert having to answer to the newly-created commission within days — shows that Republican legislative leaders aren’t going to let Herbert alone decide how to open up the state’s economy — and adding elective surgeries and restaurants specifically into the bill shows that legislators are hearing from constituents who don’t like what’s happening now.

I see politics playing a part in all of this, as well.

Herbert is a lame duck, he’s not running again this year.

But all of the House and half of the Senate seats are up. And incumbents are hearing from some of their constituents that the governor may have over-reacted in shutting down the state, or is moving too slowly in opening it up again.

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, sponsor of HB3005, said Thursday morning that none of the orders Herbert has issued up to this point couldn’t have waited a day or two, time for legislative leaders to give response to what he intended and sought input on the implications themselves from others, including their caucus members.

Gibson said in one case, leaders were told 15 minutes before Herbert issued an order — not enough time for lawmakers to react to it.

Whatever the case, it’s clear by the two-dozen or so bills in this coronavirus special session, which will continue Friday, and maybe next week, GOP legislative leaders are going to play a role in dealing with this serious virus outbreak.

Whether Herbert likes it much or not.