Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Blunting GOP Attacks on SB54

bernick mugWho knows how many more legal/political rabbits GOP state chairman James Evans may pull out of his anti-SB54 hat.

But Republican Gov. Gary Herbert would be smart to call a special legislative session before the end of this year to fix whatever SB54 language Evans is complaining about lately.

Good public policy says to avoid any lawsuit you can by making the language in the law in question tighter, more succinct.

And there does seem to be some wiggle-room in SB54’s drafting – just enough perhaps for Evans to throw a wrench into the whole intent of the Legislature’s compromise with the powerful folks behind the Count My Vote citizen initiative petition of 2013-2014.

That petition, well on its way to get the required number of signatures to make the 2014 November ballot, would make Utah – like many other states – a direct primary state.

That is, if CMV were approved by voters last year, ALL candidates who filed for office as, say, a Republican would go on the Republican Party’s primary ballot, the top vote-getter winning that party nomination.

Republican legislators – being the smart little puppies they are – wanted to at least keep the option of a candidate going through the party’s traditional route of winning a nomination through delegate votes at the convention.

So, the dual-path candidate route compromise in SB54 was development.

Evans and GOP leaders NEVER accepted SB54.

That was the work of the GOP majority in the Legislature, Herbert and the CMV bosses.

In return for SB54, CMV leaders stopped their petition drive. And the Count My Vote initiative never made the 2014 ballot.

So, an explicit deal was struck between GOP legislators, Herbert, and CMV.

Evans’ lawsuit, claims of unfair meddling into private political party affairs, and such – all that has happened since – is GOP state and county leaders desperately trying to hold on to their power, via delegates, over their own elected officials.

Evans doesn’t put it in these terms, of course. He maintains – and he’s been consistent in this – that he’s just trying to protect the Utah Republican Party brand.

To ensure, if you will, that a candidate who files as a Republican really IS a Republican, and not some moderate, independent or even, God forbid, Democrat, who is interloping into the Grand Old Party and winning a seat draped in wolf’s clothing.

Several significant changes could be made in a special session – even if it would come quickly with little time to publicly vet alternative solutions:

— First, lawmakers could blunt and/or dash the latest Evans’ claim that SB54 ALLOWS the state party to pick only the delegate/convention route for a candidate – and if a candidate filed as a Republican but took ONLY the petition-gathering route he or she would be in violation of party bylaws, and if a candidate violates party bylaws he or she is automatically kicked out of party membership.

— Secondly, legislators could move all the candidate filing deadlines to Jan. 4.

SB54 says that any candidate seeking the petition-gathering route may start gathering signatures the first of each election year.

Normally, the candidate filing deadline is in mid-March, after the Legislature’s general session ends.

By having two candidate filing deadlines – petition-route early January, non-petition route (convention) mid-March, it fouls up any candidate’s campaign strategy decision-making.

One could start spending time and money on petition gathering, only to find out in mid-March that you don’t have a challenger.

Or one could wait for the mid-March filing, believing you were fine with your delegates, only to find out too late for the petition route that you have two or three really well-known, well-funded challengers – who could take you out in the convention.

Changing SB54 so that all candidates file in early January takes away that uncertainty.

The downside to a January candidate filing deadline is that the governor and legislators would know who was running against them during the 45-day general session.

That could put campaign politics into play in legislative decisions more than it would normally be in an election year.

On the other hand, if a legislator up for re-election ended up with little or no opposition in his campaign, then he could act more freely during the Legislature.

So there could be pluses or minuses with moving all candidate filings to January.

Of course, lawmakers and Herbert could just ignore Evans and let SB54 stand. But that could prove confusing to 2016 candidates, and result in more lawsuits.

Fix SB54 now.

And fix it along the original SB54/Count My Vote compromise of 2014.