Lawmakers debating whether to extend coronavirus emergency declaration ahead of Thursday’s special session

Utah Capitol 13

A debate over Governor Gary Herbert’s declaration of a state of emergency is dominating behind the scenes discussions ahead of Thursday’s special legislative session.

Utah lawmakers are grappling whether to again extend the state of emergency because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the issue might not end up on the agenda of the session, which legislative leaders called for on Monday afternoon. 

In June, lawmakers extended the state of emergency for a second time since the governor issued the original declaration, this time until August 20.

UtahPolicy.com has learned that some lawmakers are balking at an extension of the current emergency declaration, arguing that emergencies should not last for months on end, which is the opposite of the purpose of declaring an emergency. 

“At some point, an emergency is no longer an emergency,” said one lawmaker who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We, as lawmakers need to step up and actually legislate.”

UtahPolicy.com is told that negotiations between the governor’s office and legislative leaders on emergency powers have been taking place since last week. As of Monday night, there had been no resolution on the issue. The issue is set for discussion during the Political Subdivisions Interim Committee on Wednesday afternoon. 

Legislators are also under an unrelenting onslaught from some members of the public who are sending mass emails and texts, urging them to reject another extension. The belief is, absent another emergency declaration, the state would abandon all of the coronavirus restrictions and color-coded risk system, allowing businesses and the rest of Utah to open fully. 

That’s not quite true. Legislative sources tell UtahPolicy.com that, absent the extension, Gov. Herbert would likely issue another emergency declaration to keep at least some restrictions in place. That allows the state to continue using federal coronavirus relief funds. Under a bill passed by the legislature during their April special session, Herbert must give lawmakers 24 hours notice before taking any emergency action. 

Some lawmakers would rather not extend the emergency declaration, and let Herbert take the political hit by issuing a new one. Why should lawmakers provide political cover for Herbert and extend the emergency when he’s retiring at the end of the year and his hand-picked successor, Spencer Cox, is all but assured to be the next governor? Let Herbert, and by extension Cox, be the bad guy, goes the thinking.

It’s possible, according to legislative sources, that lawmakers could move to extend some parts of Herbert’s emergency declaration while letting others expire. 

There’s already significant opposition to prolonging Herbert’s declaration. In June, the resolution passed the House and Senate, but 22 Representatives and 7 Senators voted against the resolution. That number has likely grown in the meantime. It would only take 16 more Representatives or 8 Senators to change their vote to block any extension.

Other items included on the agenda, as previously reported by UtahPolicy.com, include:

  • Making changes to the qualifications for the new executive director for the Department of Health. Some of the current candidates for the permanent job don’t meet the requirements.
  • Making changes to Utah’s election laws because of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Addressing public education funding and enrollment. As we previously reported, legislators may look at raising enrollment caps for charter schools. There was some talk about providing financial assistance or tax credits for parents who homeschool their children because of the pandemic, but that issue may wait until January’s regular session.
  • Adjusting the 2021 fiscal year budget because of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Allocating federal CARES Act funds.

The special session begins Thursday morning.