SALT LAKE CITY — House Republicans closed their caucus Tuesday to talk privately about a controversial bill aimed at the Count My Vote initiative that would replace the state's unique candidate nomination process with a direct primary election.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said the caucus took the unusual step of meeting behind closed doors because of possible litigation, but no decisions were made about SB54.
"We're just at the beginning of this process in the House," Lockhart said.
The bill, which allows political parties to avoid a direct primary election by making changes to the caucus and convention system for choosing nominees, passed the Senate last week.
Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said he expects the House to amend the bill, though he didn't want to speculate on the possible changes. He said House Republicans might be concerned about what the political parties see coming out of the legislation and how it would affect them.
"They may be worried about that litigation," Okerlund said. "We're hoping that doesn't happen, but it's certainly something that could happen as a result of this if the parties decided that the legal rights were being asserted by the Legislature."
Count My Vote executive co-chairman Rich McKeown said there will be a court fight if SB54 is passed and the initiative both qualifies for a spot on the November ballot and is approved by voters.
"If there is a conflict between SB54 and the initiative, we would pursue all legal means to put into effect the will of the people, which would be reflected in Count My Vote," McKeown said.
Gov. Gary Herbert has already said he may veto the bill, sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, because it interferes both with the political parties as well as the initiative process.
The governor repeated his concerns Tuesday to reporters, saying even though he supports the current system that gives political party delegates the power to pick nominees, lawmakers need to be cautious.
The public, Herbert said, shouldn't "feel like somehow the system is being gamed to their disadvantage. I don’t think there is any intent in people’s hearts to do this. But perception becomes reality."
The governor said he understands the Legislature's concerns about allowing the initiative process to go forward, calling it "a little more, you know, 'whack-a-mole'" than what he termed the "fine grinding" of the legislative process.
The House sponsor of SB54, Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said despite the controversy, he believes lawmakers will take action on the issue this session, but there may have to be changes to the bill to get it passed.
"There's a lot of work to do," McCay said after the caucus, without offering specifics. "There's just a lot of heavy lifting to do to get this bill to a position where everyone feels like it's something we ought to do."
He said the governor's concerns also will have to be addressed, but "my colleagues are much more concerned about doing what's right for the state." That means finding a way to preserve the caucus and convention system, McCay said.
But House members are having to explain to their constituents why they're getting involved while the initiative is being circulated. Count My Vote has until mid-April to collect the more than 100,000 signatures needed for a place on the November ballot.
"It is something we are weighing heavily," McCay said. "It is something that has to be considered."
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