SALT LAKE CITY — A former lawmaker still active with the Legislature's far-right Patrick Henry caucus said last week's override session was an attempt by frustrated conservatives to make Gov. Gary Herbert politically vulnerable.
"There are a number of people who voted for that override session to do just that, to call the governor out, to make him look weak," former Utah County GOP representative Craig Frank said. "I think there was a bucket load of politics involved."
Frank said the Republican governor leaned too far to the left when he vetoed the two bills overridden by lawmakers last Friday and Saturday, SB229, earmarking 30 percent of future additional sales tax revenues for roads, and HB328, ending the state's four-day work week.
"These are the kinds of things that are going to come back to bite him when he comes up for reelection," Frank said. "He's going where he thinks he needs to go to get reelected, which is the UED (Utah Education Association) and the public employees union."
Herbert faced no serious Republican opposition in the 2010 race for the remaining two years of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s term. But he has already been labeled "politically weak" by a tea party organizer in conservative Utah County.
Frank, along with other Patrick Henry caucus members including GOP Reps. Stephen Sandstrom of Orem, and Chris Herrod of Provo, have been mentioned as possible challengers to Herbert in the 2012 gubernatorial race.
"I know there are some people who are running for other offices. There's no question about it, a lot of things they are doing right now are politically motivated," said House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden.
Dee said while there are "some very, very conservative members of our caucus who are concerned about some of the decisions the governor has made," Herbert can still prevail within the party.
"I don't see anybody out there saying he's weakened himself to a point where he's vulnerable right now," the majority leader said. "He's got plenty of time to work with the Legislature."
The co-founder of the Patrick Henry caucus, Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, said while he doesn't want to weaken the governor, others in the caucus might.
Still, Wimmer, widely seen to be considering a run for the state's new 4th congressional seat, said most conservatives were more interested in overriding the bills for fiscal reasons.
"The override session was not an indictment on the governor," he said, adding that the action would have "very little effect" on Herbert long term. "These two particular issues are not issues the voters and delegates get really passionate about."
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and an adviser to the governor, said there were other options available to lawmakers than an override.
Negotiations had been ongoing with the governor on the roads funding bill until just before midnight the day before the session. And Herbert had already signed an executive order ordering state agencies to find ways to offer critical services on Fridays.
"Because these two matters could have been handled so differently by the Legislature, it does beg speculation about some of the political backroom machinations," Jowers said.
Especially, Jowers said, since the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing legislative and congressional districts according to the latest census results is under way.
That's whetted the political appetites of "a lot of ambitious politicians," Jowers said. "And even with Utah's new fourth seat, there are still only so many offices to go around for legislators looking to take the next step forward."
That kind of jostling for position could have led to the surprise decision in Friday's House GOP caucus to seek an override of the four-day work week bill. Senate Republicans couldn't come up with the needed two-thirds votes on Friday so took the extraordinary step of continuing the session Saturday night.
"You wonder if they just started rolling and decided they might as well hit him with the right as well as the left once they started punching," Jowers said of the House Republicans. "It may be seen as more crassly political."
He said the overrides may end up hurting the Legislature more than the governor, particularly if Herbert can't recommend what he sees as the needed funding for education in his next budget because of the new transportation earmark.
The governor's spokeswoman, Ally Isom, had little to say about what motivated the override session.
"This story is two days old and we really have nothing new to add," Isom said. "The governor vetoed the bills on policy and principle. When he feels the Legislature has passed a bad bill, he will veto it. That's his role. We are not going to speculate on legislative motive."