Democratic Attorney General Jan Graham, GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt and Republican lawmakers appear to have worked out a compromise on a controversial new law that strips Graham's office of civil authority.
Wednesday morning House and Senate GOP leaders and Leavitt said monthlong talks appear to be fruitful and a lawsuit can be avoided.Details of the plan haven't been released.
But Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful, said in the "rare" instances where Leavitt and Graham disagree over a civil litigation approach, both sides will be able to be heard in court and express their opinions in public.
"It's a statesman-like compromise," he said.
Graham, too, is optimistic.
"We're very comfortable with the current draft and very hopeful we can come together on this today," she said early Wednesday. "The major issues have been resolved, and we're talking about details."
As reported previously, Graham sought out Leavitt, House Speaker Marty Stephens and Beattie last month asking for one last attempt at reaching a compromise before she filed a much-anticipated lawsuit on the matter. Attorneys for the three parties have been meeting since.
The topic, along with the gun debate, dominated morning discussions on Utah's Capitol Hill Wednesday as lawmakers met for a monthly interim meeting of the Legislature.
House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, said as language over changes in the new law is passed back and forth no final agreement has been reached. "But I think we'll get there."
Vicki Varela, Leavitt's deputy chief of staff, said the governor's office is also optimistic about chances of a compromise.
Both House and Senate GOP caucuses were to be briefed on the negotiations at noon.
"The problem we have (in the House) is that we passed what we believed, still believe, is a good law" in the 1999 session, Garn said. "Now to go back and change it, what does that say" about the original bill?
Republicans took a pretty good licking over HB139. Graham and Democrats lambasted them for pursuing the only statewide elected Democrat.
And various public opinion polls basically showed that citizens didn't like the law and believed Republicans were ganging up on Graham.
But Beattie said "fine-tuning" the new law just makes it better.
"In the end, it will be very clear who the client is (the governor) and who the attorney is (the attorney general) in the relationship in state government," he said. "I think we can be pleased with it. I think Jan can be pleased with it."
After Republicans in the 1999 Legislature passed HB139, Graham first said she'd file in suit in May, then June, then on July 4. Every deadline passed without the suit being filed as Graham said she was working with GOP leaders.
Graham told the Deseret News last month she wants HB139 repealed, but GOP leaders have said that won't happen.
However, changes could be made to the law in the 2000 session that could satisfy all sides, they said.
All along leaders said they had strong legal and constitutional grounds for their actions in HB139, which also requires that the 29 elected county attorneys follow the commands of their county commissions or councils on civil legal matters.
Graham's job is outlined in the Utah Constitution whereas the county attorneys' jobs are set by statute controlled by lawmakers. The constitution says the attorney general shall by the "legal adviser" to state agencies and perform other duties as defined by law.
Republican lawmakers and Leavitt say that means the attorney general doesn't make civil decisions, the executive does, and that her duties can be redefined by the Legislature.
Graham has had several scrapes with Republican leaders over the last seven years in how Utah handles itself in civil matters. Graham and Democrats cried foul over HB139, claiming it was a clear attempt to get her politically and harm the traditional independence of her office.
Graham, enlisting the aid of the national attorneys general association and others, said HB139 was clearly unconstitutional according to Utah's highest law. The attorney general may well claim any compromise as a victory, one Republican lawmaker said Tuesday. But after the public and media read the "compromise" they'll see for themselves that the governor will still have the power to decide civil matters for the state, and that's the crux of HB139.
Graham at various times contemplated running for re-election in 2000 to see the matter through and considered running against Leavitt for governor next year because of the flap.
Now she says she'll likely not seek office in 2000.