Legislative leaders eyeing two more special sessions in May and June

Utah Capitol 30

Sources tell UtahPolicy.com that the Utah Legislature will be called into at least two more special sessions before the end of the fiscal year, June 30.

Likely dates could be May 15 and June 15, sources said, with the main topics more state budget adjustments needed to deal with the growing cost of dealing with the coronavirus outbreak here.

And, like the two-distinct sessions called just days ago in April, these will be “virtual,” or the 75 House members and 29 senators participating online, with debate and votes taken from the 104 members’ homes or offices. Only the presiding officers, Speaker Brad Wilson and President Stuart Adams, actually in their chambers with a few staff alongside.

It is now unclear if the lawmakers will call themselves into the special session — which requires two-thirds votes of the House and Senate — or whether GOP Gov. Gary Herbert will call one or more of the sessions himself.

That’s because the 2018 constitutional amendment voters approved allowing lawmakers themselves to call specials sessions says that legislators can’t re-allocate, or spend, more than 1 percent of the current year’s budget.

More than that and Herbert, as governor, must call the special session.

That restriction is why Herbert called a one-day special session several weeks ago — lawmakers had to allocate $2 billion in the already-adopted 2021 budget in federal coronavirus-relief monies — more than allowed in the $20 billion state spending plan.

If the Legislature calls itself in — as it did the first special session in April — then it can meet for 10 days, taking time off as leaders see fit. And the agenda is set by Wilson and Adams in an official “proclamation,” which can be altered or added to without the governor’s say so.

If Herbert calls the special session, then lawmakers can stay in session for up to 30 days, and the governor alone sets the agenda.

“We would prefer to (call ourselves in),” said one top Republican, “then we have better control” over what is discussed and acted upon. “But we may have to do more” than 1 percent in budget changes,” they added.

The April virtual special session called by lawmakers was, by all accounts, a success — with little technical problems.

However, the majority Republicans did approve, via a resolution, the state taking quick action to buy upwards of $8 million of possible drugs/treatments to create a stockpile of medications to battle the coronavirus.

That planed purchase has turned into a PR nightmare for the Herbert administration. Several leading lawmakers, including Adams, pushed Herbert and state health officials to buy $800,000 of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that some claimed would help fight the virus. That purchase came under fire after studies showed the drug did not provide many therapeutic benefits against the novel coronavirus, and may actually increase the chances of death in some patients. 

Meds in Motion agreed to refund the $800,000 to the state after controversy around the purchase erupted, and the further $8 million purchases are on hold. 

Governor Gary Herbert’s office conducted an internal review of how the initial purchase of the drug was approved but found no wrongdoing by anyone in his administration. But that is not the end of the brouhaha. Utah State Auditor John Dougall, a former House Republican, confirmed this weekend that his office was conducting an audit into how the money was spent and who approved the purchase.

But, the additional $8 million appropriation is still out there, and it’s unclear if a new special session will do anything to address how it may be spent, or if lawmakers would have to act to spend it.