SALT LAKE CITY — A new poll released Thursday shows Utah voters are split over amending the state Constitution to let lawmakers call themselves into a special session of the Legislature, a power now reserved solely for the governor.
The proposed amendment, passed by the 2018 Legislature, will be on the November ballot. Amending the Utah Constitution requires the support of at least two-thirds of the state House and Senate, and a majority of voters in a general election.
A poll for UtahPolicy.com found that 47 percent of voters support the constitutional amendment while 41 percent oppose it and 12 percent aren't sure how they feel about it.
The poll was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates for the online political news source May 15-25 of 615 likely Utah voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
Between the annual 45-day legislative sessions that start in late January, the governor is currently the only person who can call lawmakers back into session, and only the governor determines what's going to be on their agenda.
But lawmakers decided that needed to change after last year's friction with Gov. Gary Herbert over the special election to fill the 3rd Congressional District vacancy left when Jason Chaffetz resigned his seat and became a Fox News contributor.
Legislative leaders wanted the governor to call them into a special session to establish an abbreviated process where candidates would be nominated by political parties rather than through a primary.
Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who oversees elections, instead chose to set up a process similar to regular elections where candidates can gather voter signatures to guarantee themselves a spot on the primary ballot.
The result was that GOP primary voters ultimately picked a candidate who both competed at a party convention and gathered voter signatures, now-Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, over the party delegates' nominee, former lawmaker Chris Herrod.
Curtis beat Herrod again in this year's Republican primary election.
The sponsor of the proposed amendment, House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said it goes beyond settling a score with the governor over the special election.
"I don't think most people have a good understanding of that, the intricacies of that debate. But that's not really what this is about," Wilson said. "This is just a broader issue about kind of the voice of the people."
The majority leader said voters may not be paying attention to the political battles but "recognize the Legislature is an equal branch of government and our job is to do our work" and see the amendment as a commonsense measure.
That's not how the governor sees it.
Herbert's deputy chief of staff, Paul Edwards, said as Utahns learn more about the proposed amendment, "they increasingly appreciate the wisdom of the checks and balances built into Utah's Constitution."
They also "appreciate that it could be abused," Edwards said, and "could incentivize the Legislature to leave difficult but important legislative business undone during the general session and that it could open the door to a full-time state Legislature."
UtahPolicy.com Publisher LaVarr Webb, who writes a political column for the Deseret News, said he doesn't believe that would happen.
"I don't think it's even close to anything like that," he said. "I don't think the legislators themselves want to be full time, so I don't think it will be a step in that direction."
Webb said he was surprised at the level of support that the poll found for the amendment, given it's about "the details of governing and most people aren't too interested in that."
Webb said he expected more people to be opposed to the possibility of the Legislature holding more special sessions. But he said while he agreed the governor handled the special election correctly, the amendment is a good idea.
"The governor probably has too much power to control the Legislature," he said. "If the Legislature is a co-equal branch, why does the governor have control over when it meets, I guess is the question."
He said the Legislature's dependency on the governor to determine what merits a special session could become an even bigger issue should both branches of government no longer be controlled by the same political party.
Republicans hold supermajorities in the Legislature's House and Senate and a Democrat has not been elected governor since 1980, so Webb said it's still a feud within the GOP family.
The amendment will compete for voter attention with a packed ballot in November.
The U.S. Senate race between former 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson is among the high-profile races voters will decide.
But there are also other issues on the ballot besides the amendment, including an initiative legalizing medical marijuana and a nonbinding question to advise lawmakers about boosting the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon to help fund education.
"I think this could easily be drowned out," Webb said, unless supporters and opponents of the special session amendment make an effort to keep the issue in front of voters.7 comments on this story
Brad Wilson said while there haven't been discussions among legislative leaders about campaigning for the amendment yet, that could change. He said he's been contacted by several people interested in helping since the poll was released.
Given how divided voters are according to the poll, there may be work to be done.
"I think that there's enough other stuff going on that will be on people's minds that it's a good thing to be thinking about, making sure people understand this," Brad Wilson said. "I've learned you never take anything for granted in an election."