Webb’s Wrap: Prediction – Fight will escalate over lawmakers calling special sessions . . . UTA is recovering

Voters gave Utah lawmakers full authority to call themselves into special sessions. But that doesn’t mean the executive branch has to like it. It’s clearly going to be a topic of on-going friction between the two branches of government.

Currently, relationships are quite good between Gov. Gary Herbert and House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate Pres. Stuart Adams. They like each other, consult frequently, and usually don’t go public with differences.

There are some legislators, including Republicans, who aren’t much appreciated by the governor’s folks. And, conversely, there are some legislators who are happy to fight with the governor. But that’s to be expected with 104 lawmakers, each independently elected and each feeling a mandate. It’s a wonder leadership keeps them in line at all.

In the last election, voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing lawmakers to call emergency special sessions. Previously, only the governor could call a special session and he dictated what topics could be addressed.

Lawmakers recently called an emergency special session and addressed numerous agenda items, not all of which rose to the status of emergencies. That created some consternation in the executive branch, and there was talk of a slippery slope to a professional, full-time legislature.

Wilson and Adams are quick to note that they have absolutely no desire to become a full-time legislature. They believe a strength of Utah’s legislative branch is that its members live and work in the communities they represent and have to live with the laws they create. No one wants a full-time legislature.

And, they point out, the governor can veto bills passed in a special session if he doesn’t like them. They note that we are living in unprecedented times and lawmakers have to meet frequently enough to deal with the emergencies that arise.

But the governor’s allies say he is more than willing to call a special session when one is needed.

Real clashes may occur in the future if the legislative majority is of a different party than the governor, or if the governor and legislative leaders really don’t like each other – as has been the case sometimes in the past.

Clearly, special sessions are sometimes needed, especially in crises. But they ought to be infrequent and short. The lawmaking process is abbreviated and less thorough in a special session. Committee hearings are usually skipped and public input is limited.

Watch for the legislature’s significant new power to continue to be a source of contention with the executive branch.

Something I learned crashing a Zoom meeting. Utah Transit Authority service (number of buses and trains running, etc.) is back up to 91% of pre-coronavirus service levels. Ridership, however, is at 59% of pre-COVID-19 levels. Bus ridership is down 55%; FrontRunner down 74%; TRAX down 60%. However, ridership is actually coming up: From the April 7 low, bus ridership is up 68%; FrontRunner up 102%; TRAX up 59%. Paratransit up a whopping 213%.

On the financial front, UTA is doing OK, despite the economic slump. Sales tax revenues remain strong, now about even with projections for the year to date. It is a testament to Utah’s strong economy – and the federal stimulus package.  Fare revenue is down significantly, a loss of $10 million so far, but CARES Act funding has more than made up for it.

With Utah’s population still rising rapidly, we’re going to need a healthy public transit system to address congestion and improve air quality.

Parting shot. Nice thing about staying safe and social distancing at our remote farm (besides not having to shave) is when there’s something on my plate I don’t want to eat, I can just toss it out the window and the chickens and dogs scarf it down. They now hang out under the window. Who needs a garbage disposal?

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