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Legislation would limit governor’s emergency powers

FILE: Utah Legislature

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker wants to eliminate an emergency powers work-around used by former Gov. Gary Herbert in 2020 to extend COVID-19 executive orders he’d already issued.

SB195 would remove the power to re-issue an emergency order from the Utah governor; lawmakers would hold that power instead.

Emergency powers under legislative scrutiny

The emergency powers bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City. It addresses what became a power struggle between Utah’s executive and legislative branches in the early stages of the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been new territory for all of us, and over the last 11 months, we realized the need for adjustments,” Vickers said in a statement. “Utahns voiced concerns and lawmakers looked for ways to improve the process to ensure democracy is upheld, even in times of crisis. We have an opportunity and duty to take the lessons learned and prepare for future prolonged pandemics, whether it is in a year or 30 years.”

In mid-August, 2020, then-Gov. Gary Herbert had sought to extend an emergency order which was about to expire, but there was not enough support among lawmakers to extend the order.  This led Herbert to instead issue new emergency orders.

What would change

The new bill would prohibit the Utah Department of Health or governor from declaring a new state of emergency after a previous one expires, unless there are exigent, or pressing, circumstances.

SB195 also seeks to define the type of powers held by Utah’s governor in long-term states of emergency.  It creates an ad hoc committee to review emergency circumstances that could lead to such a state of emergency; the legislation also requires the governor to notify the legislature before taking “certain executive actions” during a long-term state of emergency.

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