Lawmakers, Gov. Herbert at odds over scope, length of coronavirus emergency declaration

20200820 Herbert news conference

Gov. Gary Herbert says he will issue a new state of emergency declaration on Thursday night when the current declaration expires at midnight.

Herbert and lawmakers were unable to come to an agreement over extending the current state of emergency beyond the 30-day limit prescribed by Utah law.

“The declaration of emergency allows the governor to be very quick. We need to respond immediately, and we’re allowed to do that for a period of time,” said Gov. Herbert during his monthly KUED news conference.

“We’re not out of the woods yet on this pandemic, even though we are making some good headway, I believe,” said Herbert announcing the forthcoming new emergency declaration.

“Just for information, all of the states in America today have an emergency declaration in place, including the federal government. So if we were not to do this, we would be the only state of the 50 that would not have an emergency declaration in place,” he added.

Lawmakers were deeply divided over whether to extend the current state of emergency for another thirty days, having issued extensions twice previously, or whether to let them expire. Legislators also were contemplating making changes to Utah’s emergency declaration statute, but did not move forward because they did not have enough votes to avoid a likely veto from Gov. Herbert.

Seemingly, one point of contention between the legislature and governor is what types of situations are covered by the state’s emergency declaration law. Herbert said during his press conference that pandemics, such as the current coronavirus, are covered, while some in the legislature believe they are not. 

“I think we all agree right now in the code the section around emergency powers really didn’t contemplate anything out of the shorter term declaration of emergencies like fires or earthquakes,” said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Layton, on Thursday. 

Herbert acknowledged that some in the legislature were uncomfortable with allowing the state of emergency to continue for months, but he said the nature of the current situation makes that a necessity.

“I understand the concern bout how long an emergency lasts and when we will be able to get back to normal. It’s a worthwhile discussion to have,” he said but added the virus is a pressing issue that won’t wait for the ironing out of philosophical differences.

Utah’s emergency management act does not specifically mention pandemics, but legislative counsel said in a presentation to lawmakers from March that a “disaster” includes “natural phenomena,” which does cover epidemics. 

Technically, “epidemic” and “pandemic” are not interchangeable words. Both deal with disease, but the difference is scale of the infection. 

Legislative sources indicate that lawmakers were frustrated they didn’t have the numbers to move to curtail Herbert’s emergency powers during the session. Ironically, the legislation they were considering would have put more boundaries on what Herbert was able to do, but some in the public saw the bill as an endorsement for Herbert’s emergency powers.

Lawmakers grew gunshy about taking up the issue after an onslaught of emails and text messages from some members of the public who opposed extending the emergency declaration, wrongly believing the state would dump the restrictions put in place to stop the spread of the virus, allowing the state’s economy to fully open. 

Wilson says lawmakers will probably revisit the issue during the 2021 general session in January. 

“We felt this probably was a discussion that was better left for the future,” he said.

Herbert will now likely have to re-issue an emergency declaration every thirty days going forward until the coronavirus pandemic has waned.