Legislative session to begin a week earlier, but 45-day length remains the same

Because of the passage of Constitutional Amendment F on Tuesday, and a previously passed law, the 2021 Utah general legislative session will start Jan. 19.

That’s a week earlier than it would have started, Jan. 25, under the unamended Utah Constitution.

Jan. 19 is a Tuesday, and the preceding Monday is a federal holiday — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The 2021 general session, and all future sessions (unless changed, again, by a constitutional amendment) will remain 45 days, not counting any federal holidays within that period.

That means the 2021 general session will end at midnight, Thursday, March 4.

The passage of Amendment F gives the Legislature flexibility to change the day it starts its general session. A bill passed previously, SB156 in the 2020 session, says the start date will be the first Tuesday after the third Monday in January.

But future legislatures can change that law, without voter approval, to some other start date in January.

At 45 calendar days, Utah’s is one of the shortest regular general sessions of any state. And the part-time 104 Utah legislators like to keep it short for a number of reasons, including that most of them need to get back to their regular full or part-time jobs.

The end date is also set in legal stone; Utah legislators can’t put a rag over the official clocks in the House and Senate and keep passing bills after midnight of the last day. A bill-tracking computer tells leaders when it passes midnight and any official action after that deadline is invalid.

Lawmakers did pass — and voters approved — a constitutional amendment two years ago that allows legislators themselves to call the Legislature into a special session — defined as any official meeting of the whole Legislature outside of the general session.

Before then, only the governor could call a special session and he alone set the agenda.

And, in fact, legislators did call themselves into their own special session this year to deal with coronavirus issues.

However, that new legislative authority can’t be used for a set time AFTER the general session, and any budget decisions are strictly limited.

That was done so legislators can’t basically ignore the 45-day general session end time and be able to just keep on meeting by calling themselves into a “special” session right after the general session ends.

That “drop-dead” general session deadline is needed, lawmakers say, to force future Legislatures from putting off difficult budget and bill fights, when decisions should be made in the 45-day time frame.

There is a long history to why state lawmakers wanted flexibility to when they start their general session. Because of odd election calendar dates this past year, there was very little time after the session ended for key election activities to begin, leading to the end-of-June party primary elections — with county party and the state party conventions crammed into just a short time frame.

And as you might imagine, incumbent legislators — especially the majority Republicans — want adequate time for the session to end and when they have to file for office and start their re-election campaigns.