Legislators can’t find enough support to extend coronavirus emergency declaration

Utah Capitol 26

Legislators have decided not to extend Governor Gary Herbert’s coronavirus emergency declaration, meaning it will expire at midnight on Thursday. But, Herbert can simply declare another emergency, which will keep the current coronavirus restrictions in place for another 30 days. 

As UtahPolicy.com first reported on Monday, legislators were negotiating behind the scenes with Herbert’s office over whether to extend the emergency or let it expire. Politics played a big part in those discussions as legislators were being bombarded with emails and text messages urging them to not extend the emergency. 

Many of those mass messages had the mistaken belief that, if lawmakers did not extend the emergency, the state’s economy would return to pre-coronavirus standing with no restrictions. Instead, Herbert can simply declare another emergency that lawmakers could either extend or try to rescind.

Legislators admitted on Wednesday they did not have enough support to extend Herbert’s emergency declaration, nor did they have enough votes to make changes to the state’s emergency powers statute that would survive a likely veto by Herbert.

Negotiations with the governor’s office continued throughout the morning on Wednesday, right up until a legislative committee was set to debate possible legislation to change the emergency declarations statute and a resolution to extend the current emergency. Those items were abruptly yanked from the agenda as legislative leaders and the governor could not find common ground. 

Sources indicate that talks between legislative leadership and Gov. Herbert’s office are continuing, but no one would comment on the record about the status or nature of those talks. 

“While emergency powers are rightfully granted to the executive branch, they have historically been limited to short periods of time, typically to address natural disasters,” said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Layton, in a statement.

There was a worry that, if Herbert’s emergency declaration was allowed to expire, it would put some federal funding in jeopardy. That is not the case according to Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, who said there’s no clear consensus on the part of lawmakers about what to do.

“There is no appetite by the legislature to extend this emergency,” said Anderegg. “There have been discussions about making changes to the law, but we don’t have a veto-proof majority. We might have to take action during the general session,” he said. 

Anderegg said the most likely scenario is the current emergency will expire Thursday. That means all of the 20 or so directives still active will expire at that time. Herbert will then likely reinstate those directives, which will then be in effect for another 30 days. 

“My personal feeling is we’ll see the governor calling a new state of emergency every thirty days or so for the next few months,” he added. 

UtahPolicy.com is told that politics played a big part in the decision not to take action on the current emergency situation. Some lawmakers did not want to give Gov. Herbert political cover by extending the emergency and want him to suffer the public wrath from issuing a new declaration. 

The legislature has called itself into the special session which begins Thursday morning.