SALT LAKE CITY — Did you know that under current state law, the Utah legislature can not convene itself for an unplanned session?
Sure, the governor can call a special session to discuss a specific issue. But he’s the only one with that power — unless the governor intervenes, state legislators must wait to address an issue until the next general legislative session.
Proposed Constitutional Amendment C, one of seven voter referendums Utahns will find on their ballot this November, would change this. Amendment C would give the state legislature the power to convene a special session of their own in the event of “a fiscal crisis, war, natural disaster, or emergency in the affairs of the state.”
The amendment would also clarify laws on where various types of legislative sessions are held, and require the legislature to convene if the governor is unable to balance the state’s budget for any one fiscal year.
The Status Quo
As it stands, the Utah state legislature is required to convene for 45 days every year during the general legislative session. Current law requires the session to be held at the state Capitol building and provides no exception to this rule. Conversely, current law does not specify where special sessions called by the governor are to be held, nor does it allow legislators to call their own special session.
By way of budgeting, current law offers the governor the option to convene the legislature if state expenses for a fiscal year look likely to exceed state revenues.
Amendment C, however, would require the governor to convene the legislature if they are unable to reconcile deficits in the state’s revenue. It would require that the governor “either (1) reduce proportionately the amount of money spent, except for money spent for the state’s debt, or (2) convene the legislature into session so that the legislature may address the revenue shortfall.”
Amendment C would also give the legislature the power to convene itself to address “a fiscal crisis, war, natural disaster, or emergency in the affairs of the state.” Calling a session would require a two-thirds majority vote from both the House and the Senate. The session would be limited to the topic declared in the opening proclamation, and could not authorize more money to be spent than one percent of the state’s total budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Sessions cannot be called within 30 days of the general legislative session and must not last more than 10 days.
Finally, Amendment C would require that all legislative sessions — general or special, called by the governor or the legislature — be held at the state Capitol building, except in the event of an “epidemic, natural or human-caused disaster, enemy attack, or other public catastrophe.”
Voter approval of Amendment C would implement House Joint Resolution 18 (H.J.R. 18), which passed unanimously in the House and 24-4 in the Senate in the 2018 general legislative session. It would take effect on January 1, 2019.
Arguments in Favor
Utah’s elections website features a nonpartisan writeup on Amendment C. It includes arguments in its favor by Rep. Brad Wilson and Senator Daniel Hemmert, the sponsors of H.J.R. 18.
Wilson and Hemmert argue that the state legislature, designed to be the voice of the people, is “effectively silenced more than ten months of the year.” They say that instances in which the legislature may need to convene outside of the general session are rare, but that it should be empowered to do so in the event of a time-sensitive crisis. According to Wilson and Hemmert, the two-thirds majority vote required to call the session will ensure it remains a last resort option, and the restrictions on session length and budget adjustments will ensure its impacts remain minimal.
The elections website’s brief on Amendment C also includes arguments against the measure, authored by Senator Lyle Hillyard. His argument is particularly to-the-point, opening with the sentence, “in my experience, special sessions can be nightmares.”
Hillyard argues that special sessions are rushed, disorganized and deprive the public of adequate opportunities to weigh in on the issues at hand. He also questions the necessity of the bill, writing that in his 38 years of serving in the legislature, he has only seen the governor and legislative leaders disagree once over the decision to call a special session. Finally, Hillyard expresses concern about “the constant pressure to move us from a part-time to a full-time legislature” and the practical impacts of asking legislators to take time off from their “off season” jobs outside of the general session.
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